Romance and Emotional Justice
So I recently saw the movie version of Gone Girl, which had some provocative differences from the book, even though both were written by Gillian Flynn. Those differences, which include a reversal in sympathetic portrayals between the husband and wife, may have been a function of directorial or editorial vision. Or it could be that filmmakers believe that no one wants to see Ben Affleck play a self-absorbed, duplicitous asshole. Either way, I left the theater frustrated and uneasy with how the film ended, because the unfairness completely destroyed any trust I had given the rest of the movie and its characters.
Without revealing the major spoilers in Gone Girl, I will just say that I was struck by how both the book and the movie play on and use tropes and expectations associated with romance – the meet cute, the opposites-attract relationship, the marriage-in-trouble plot – and how much the narratives rely on the reader’s understanding and investment in these narratives. We’re being told a story about two people falling in love and then dealing with all sorts of normal life stresses on their relationship. It’s important that we believe in that relationship, and we’re cued at many points along the way to emotionally invest in these characters. We get both of their POV’s; we see their vulnerabilities and the way they seem to find in the other that one person who really understands and accepts them.
All of that is necessary for the ‘big twist’ of the story to do its twisty work. And it doesn’t take much – just a few shifts here and there – for all of that romantic architecture to crash down, and for a book like Gone Girl to read like the antithesis of a genre Romance novel, even as it concerns many of the same issues we see covered in Romance. Even as the story seems to be mocking these stories — the great romance, followed by the marriage in trouble – it’s using those stories and putting the lovers through their paces in living them out.
During one of those cable-tv interviews they force on you in lieu of commercials between programs, Ben Affleck described Flynn’s story as one where people wear masks as they enter into relationships, and as the relationship matures, those masks come off and you see who you’re really with.
Again, something akin to the development of the romantic plotline, but in the case of genre Romance, the revelation of the authentic self is cause for greater emotional closeness and romantic happiness. The guarded but noble hero becomes emotionally vulnerable in his feelings for the heroine; the aloof heroine who is really just afraid of being hurt again learns she can trust her heart to the hero. That sort of thing. Once those masks are discarded, the true emotional bond can be solidified, and the love relationship is allowed to flourish and shift from mere attraction to long-term emotional commitment and investment.
But perhaps because of the way the movie switched my perception of the two main characters, at the end of Gone Girl the film, particularly, I felt like there was a real lack of emotional justice. Not just romantic fulfillment, but an unbalanced distribution of power that pissed me off because a) it seemed to feed into some negative stereotypes about men and women, and b) it felt like a cop out from the book.
And as I thought about that, I also got to thinking about the importance of emotional justice in genre fiction. Genre fiction is all about delivering on the emotional justice. Criminals are discovered and/or caught in Mystery novels; love beats the odds in Romance. When social strictures, rules, laws, and customs rule against people we root for, we can be comforted by the way love’s victory can eclipse, or at least challenge, the other injustices.
Emotional justice is not the same thing as love conquering all, although it is often related. For example, if a reader believes that one protagonist comes out ahead of the other, love may not be enough to overcome a sense of unfairness or imbalance between them. Or when one protagonist hurts the other in some way and is not adequately humbled. When once is unfaithful, for example, and does not have to go through enough to win back the love of the other. If the reader does not feel that sense of emotional justice, even if the protagonists are in deep and exalted love, it may not be enough to make the book believable for the reader.
Miranda Neville got a great discussion going on Twitter the other day when she asked about whether readers would rather see the hero or heroine grovel. Neville indicated that hero groveling came out slightly ahead. A number of people indicated that they liked to see both hero and heroine grovel, while others talked about the circumstances under which the groveling should occur. Groveling is incredibly important in Romance, because it can go a long way to the payment of an emotional debt. Since certain actions cannot be undone, the injuring party has to make it up to the other in a way that is commensurate with the harm. The grovel allows for the injuring party — often the hero – to show understanding of and remorse for the harm. It opens both the injured party and the reader up for forgiveness, and presents the opportunity that forgiveness will not be given. The good grovel is the quintessential example of emotional justice, because it’s always a substitute for undoing the wrong.
Emotional justice is an equation that cannot always be quantified, but as a reader, I know it when I see it. But because it is emotional, there is no universal calculus. Sometimes it’s an eye for an eye, and other times it’s a balancing of the relationship scales where some things may be heavier than others. Any story can give the reader the promise of love, but without the reader’s trust in that love, the promise becomes hollow. And one way we gain that trust is by seeing the relationship as fair and even, just and right. Every reader has that point at which they feel that things are in accord, even if they are not strictly equal. But not every book will give every reader a sense of emotional justice, and not every type of story will require the same kind of justice. But without it, it’s difficult to believe in the validity of an HFN/HEA.
I’m tempted to argue that emotional justice is even more important than love, but I’m not sure how many of us make the differentiation when we read. When it’s really working, I think we tend to see that emotional justice as intrinsic to love’s success. But when it’s not, I think it’s easier to discern those aspects of the relationship that seem unbalanced or unfair.
How do you define emotional justice in Romance? What book exemplifies that perfect balance for you, and what book felt so unjust at the end that you could not buy into the love relationship? And just out of curiosity, would you rather see the hero grovel or the heroine, and why?
“If the reader does not feel that sense of emotional justice, even if the protagonists are in deep and exalted love, it may not be enough to make the book believable for the reader.”
On a related note, I think this is why assassin romances etc. don’t work for me – because even if the protagonists are ‘in deep and exalted love’ it feels like the story celebrates injustice – that a person who has chosen to do terrible things is rewarded by happiness.
Whereas, in the context of a detective story, I could read an assassin-hero/heroine, because the justice in that case belongs to the victim and their family.
I’m now wondering just how much an assassin would have to grovel before I could root for their happiness – and to whom. In any event, of the few I’ve read, I can’t think of any where the author tried for a more holistic approach to emotional justice.
And that’s key to my enjoyment: I find books where, for example, children are badly traumatised to be unsatisfactory romance reads. While the couple may achieve emotional justice, that is more than counterbalanced by the emotional injustice done to the child, so there’s a net loss of emotional justice in the fictional world.
In a romance I need to feel that one character truly regrets his or her actions when they have done the other person wrong. Its not just about saying “I’m sorry” or groveling I want them to understand the wrongness of their actions. Its hard to buy a HEA when one character has been put through an emotional ringer and the other character never really acknowledges that.
@Amanda: Agreed with this.
I want the characters to acknowledge their wrongdoings, period, and whether they’re the hero or the heroine doesn’t make a difference. I’m honestly kind of put off by the idea of having an abstract preference for one or the other to grovel independent of context; for me it’s about the specific characters in a specific situation, period. Being one sex or the other shouldn’t automatically net you extra grovelling requirements, in my opinion.
What bothers me most is when the text forces a character to grovel and I feel that the *other* character is the one whose actions warrant a larger apology. I’ve read many books in which Character A did something I found atrocious, but it was Character B who was forced to atone for their reaction or a lesser offence, without any acknowledgement from Character A that they’d been in the wrong. Sometimes A is male and sometimes A is female. It’s not a great feeling when the text clearly believes emotional justice has been served and you feel emotional injustice has been served.
This is why motorcycle club/pimp hero/drug king hero/etc. roms don’t work for me. I can’t even get to the “emotional justice” when there is no actual justice. And “emotional justice” *is* the core of love. When both characters finally understand what it takes to make the other happy and sacrifice or strive to make that a reality, that’s love in action. That’s what I’m reading for. I don’t want empty declarations, I want to see and feel it.
This is a really interesting discussion, from Janet’s essay to the comments so far. I completely relate to what you are all saying, and I adore how Janet has encapsulated something I often think about (when pondering why I do or do not enjoy certain books) in such a coherent manner. Thanks for that! It’s like you’ve given me the language to talk about these ideas more clearly.
As I read Janet’s ideas, it made me quickly think of a story I read some time ago that has stuck with me like a burr. I don’t remember the title, or the author (I deleted it from my Kindle–from my Amazon account, even–because I was so bugged), but I’m pretty sure it was a short story, a Regency that may have been part of a longer series by the author. From what I do recall, the story begins with the hero and heroine as children who teased the heck out of each other. They would each pull pranks, trying to one-up the other. Finally, the girl (IMO, pretty darn maliciously) exposes the fact that the boy still wets his bed at night (she had overheard their parents talking about it). Not only does this mortify him among their group of friends, siblings, and parents, but then he has to go back to school (Eton, or wherever) where the story gets out and he is bullied about this for years. The story resumes years later, where they meet up as adults who eventually fall in love. My problem: I never felt like the heroine really acknowledged the fact that she caused extensive harm by revealing the hero’s childhood secret. And it ticked me off. I don’t remember exactly what the hero did as a kid; I just remember that it did not compare in its scale of long-term effects or pure meanness. The whole thing made me feel like the heroine was lacking in empathy, both as a child and then as an adult (for not really recognizing the pain she caused). I know I was supposed to laugh it off, and I’m sure plenty of readers did and enjoyed the story, but this completely killed it for me.
Like others have said, I don’t care if it’s the hero or the heroine–if I feel like one character has created an imbalance in the emotional justice in the story, I have a hard time letting that go. And I also agree with the idea that any form of emotional injustice (of the type Marianne McA describes at the end of her initial comment) can leave me with a sour taste in my mouth regarding that book, regardless of the romantic storyline between the hero and heroine (or hero and hero).
Absolutely, I want the emotional justice in genre fiction. Bloodraven by PL Nunn for me was a perfect example of emotional justice which satisfied me – the MC who is in a weaker position as the book starts is an equal to Bloodraven at the end and can easily kill him if he so desires. I was satisfied with happy ending too, but this is one of the big reasons why the happy ending worked. I could not have accepted it if I did not see that Yhalen was in a perfect position to squash Bloodraven if he so desires, even if he would not do it.
Emotional justice did *not* work for me in “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay even though I still loved the book overall. I really wanted Alexan to pay for what he did to Erlein and instead even all I got was a half assed apology (this has nothing to do with romantic subplots of the book for those who have not read it). I really could related to Alexan’s quest in many ways, but I hated him and his friends at the end of the book as nobody’s business.
M/M romance book which to me is in many way antithesis of “Bloodraven” was “Cethe” by Becca Abbott. The hero is continuously raping the other guy during the course of the book and at the end of the book we get them living happily ever after – and why I should have believed it, I am not sure. Well written book which I keep recommending to people who love these kinds of books but if I were to list my most hated books in m/m (on emotional level, I gave it four stars for the writing), this book would be amongst my top three for sure. No emotional justice for me whatsoever, none.
Great essay Robin.
Oh, gosh! Sorry, I saw Janet’s name as the one who posted the essay and completely overlooked that it was written by Robin. Apologies! Great essay, *Robin* :)
@Isobel Carr: I am so with you on the MC type books. I don’t want anything good for characters who can turn a blind eye to drug and sex trafficking, not to mention choosing to stay in and therefore by implication endorse such a sexist sub-culture.
I’ve had this discussion before about MC books and I know some readers feel like a lot of MC books are actually very subversive, heroines have agency, yadda, yadda, but they just don’t work for me. I think about all the other victims.
@JewelCourt: I should have put “etc.” where I put “yadda yadda”. Upon re-read my comment sounds dismissive of other reader’s arguments which wasn’t my intention. Mea Culpa.
Love the essay and the discussion! So curious to see what people are going to say.
@Sirius: OMG, Tigana. That book started off with some fascinating themes and characters and then… It was definitely a contest as to which character was the most awful by the end of it. I’ve never hated fictional people more than I hated Alessan, Dianora and Brandin. That entire book was an exercise in almost zero emotional pay-off, not the least because the characterizations were weak and the book’s themes turned out to be very topical, shallow explorations at best (in my opinion). [/bitter, verbose rant]
That said, I think emotional justice — both parties ending on equal footing in the relationship, fully acknowledging any wrongs committed — is essential to a true HEA. Some of the old school romances (I remember a few by Johanna Lindsey and Kathleen Woodiwiss) have that old tactic where the hero would try to grovel, but then the heroine would stop them with a: “No, no need to apologize, my love! All is forgiven.” And I would read that while mentally raging, because even if the heroine didn’t need a full accounting of wrongs, I DID.
It’s gotten better over the years, though. I think most authors have a good grasp that, if there is bad behavior, there needs to be the catharsis of the grovel. Otherwise, why even make your characters do bad things? It’s so unsatisfying to read about characters who cheat, lie and are deliberately malicious — then, at the end, are just like: “What, I SAID SORRY, okay????” That’s too much shades of real life for me.
@Diana: I never understood sympathy for Brandin and Dianora, ever. I could related to Alessan and sympathize with him – up to what he did to Erlein, then I was done. I mean, I could still relate to his ends , but not to the means and I was so angry at the end. It is weird that I still love the book though despite Erlein being the only character I truly liked at the end.
I really don’t want my voice to dominate this discussion, but I thought of another way that this idea of emotional justice applies to how I weigh my pleasure in certain stories: the idea of characters in romantic relationships having … how to say it? an equal investment in the relationship and/or an equal sense of value and/or and equal sense of love. This relates to what Sirius said in her comment at 9:34, that characters should have a balance in power.
My first two examples (with SPOILERS!): 1. The whole issue with the Jaenelle/Daemon/Surreal relationships in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series. Specifically, having a character lose the “woman he was made for” and eventually marry another. I really love Surreal’s character, so while I felt that her relationship with Daemon fit in some ways (two bad-a** people that have been friends for centuries, or whatever), I was completely pained by the knowledge that Surreal would probably never be romantically loved to the degree that I would hope for her. It doesn’t help that Jaenelle often felt like a complete Mary Sue to me, so I didn’t care much for her relationship with Daemon anyway. (I know many who will disagree with my opinions on this, and I salute you!)
2. Similarly, as a teenager I read “Nerilka’s Story” before I read “Moreta’s Ride” from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series. Nerilka gets all of my sympathy in the Moreta/Alessan/Nerilka set-up, which is similar to the Black Jewels, where Alessan totally falls in love with Moreta (after losing his beloved wife), and then later marries Nerilka for companionship/children after Moreta dies. So, Alessan has loved and lost two women before he begins to establish a relationship with Nerilka (who is also totally awesome, like Surreal) and it kills me that she’s willing to accept less than a full-on romantic-love relationship with him while she herself is completely besotted with him. I want emotional equity!
This idea extends into my judgments about polyamorous relationships in books. I totally dig books that can carry off a strong poly relationship, but I find that the good ones are sometimes drowned out by the books with an imbalance, where it feels like one partner is being emotionally shafted in some way. For instance, I can’t stand poly books where two dudes are totally into one chick, but not each other. Imbalance! Or books that ostensibly value all partners, but end up focusing on how completely awesome one of the characters is and caters to that one person (again, it often tends to be the girl in a m/m/f set-up, probably playing up the fantasy for female readers–this may be why I tend to like all-male characters in poly romances, with a few exceptions). I imagine that writing a good poly relationship that respects and values all partners, and the individual relationships as well as the group dynamic, must be terribly difficult, but when it works, I love it. And when it doesn’t, I get extremely annoyed with the story. I don’t often have “middle-ground” feelings for poly books, largely due to this idea of emotional justice.
For example, through Goodreads, I found a series that features 5 guys in a polyamorous domestic discipline relationship (“Falls Chance Ranch”; free online, independently published); it didn’t feature the sexual side of their relationship much (and never explicitly, that I recall), but I really enjoyed how well it balanced the relationship between 5 people in a committed relationship. I was surprised how well it worked for me, actually. Each relationship felt important and was valued by the other partners, and the whole dynamic felt meaningful.
@JPeK: No worries – same person! (and keep talking – I’m really enjoying the comments; it’s always great to see where other people take the germ of an idea I throw out there).
Fascinating discussion! As others have mentioned, I think this is why certain premises don’t appeal to me, and I can tell that from the blurb. Like, does the blurb give *any* indication that the characters in a romance *deserve* my rooting for them? If not, and premise implies that lines are crossed, I don’t even check the sample Read Inside.
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).
Emotional justice is so important to me, though I have my own twisted way of enjoying it. For me, reciprocal suffering is what makes a great angsty romance, more than a grovel. That is, one character suffering for what they had made the other one suffer.
But there are other forms of equity. I remember that some readers felt that Gaffney’s Lily — one of the great twisted dark romances — didn’t have enough of a grovel from the hero. I didn’t need a grovel there, because I felt there was sufficient acknowledgement of his wrongs and a sacrifice to redeem himself.
This usually goes one way in romance, but I discovered when reading Always to Remember that it works equally well with the heroine causing the initial suffering.
And I very much agree with JPek that equal investment is vital.
@Robin/Janet: Phew! Thanks!
I think this basically comes down to likeability/sympathy. If I like a character, I want him/her to end up with someone who I believe has the quality of character to make them happy and do right by him/her. So if I think the love interest or second protagonist is a horrible human being, or so deeply messed-up that they are incapable of a functional relationship, I’m going to be frustrated and upset on behalf of my “friend”.
If I don’t like either main character, I’m not going to finish the book anyway.
However, a classic HEA is not always the goal. And that’s a valid artistic choice. I mean, I’ll probably still be upset but I wouldn’t feel “cheated”, per se.
For an interesting twist on sympathy/emotional justice, see if you can find the British TV series “Blackpool” on YouTube. Lots of humor and karaoke-style singing, and an ending that is surprisingly complex.
Willaful oh absolutely – I can get very bloodfirsty in wanting character to suffer too .
Very interesting post and discussion!
And timely for me — over the weekend, I was trying to articulate both why I was drawn to m/m romance and why I was so frequently frustrated by it. And this:
“And one way we gain that trust is by seeing the relationship as fair and even, just and right.”
absolutely encapsulated it.
Y’see, in my lefty way, I can’t help but see heterosexual romantic relationships automatically starting as unfair, unbalanced, and unjust — not because of any fault of the participants, just because this is the way our society is set up. For me, it takes a HUGE degree of sacrifice, commitment, and empathy on the part of the hero just to overcome that built-in imbalance, not counting any wrongs that either party may commit on their way to their HEA.
So one big factor in the appeal of the m/m is that both parties can start on a more even playing field, as it were; and if there is an imbalance, at least it’s over something *different*.
And that’s why I get so frustrated and angry at m/m romances which basically reinforce a heteronormative dynamic (naming no titles, you know who you are…)
Probably also why I love beta heroes. And why I have difficulties with IRR, although that’s a whole nother set of issues I need to work on…
@ JPek While I’ve not read the examples you’ve quoted I really understand where you are coming from. I loathe what I think of as
@ JPek While I’ve not read the examples you’ve quoted I really understand where you are coming from.
I loathe what I think of as “you’re second choice but you’ll do” trope; especially the one where the H goes off with the h’s best friend who then dies/leaves for another and suddenly H is back and justifies behaviour with lame excuses about being scared to lose the h’s friendship in the past. Even in the hands of Mayberry and Brockmann this doesn’t work for me.
Great to have this essay and comments as a framework to think about what has always been a visceral reaction to this sort of storyline.
Ah the joys of posting from mobile devices – apologies for the semi duplication. Jo
@Tatty: I like your name for this type of stories (“you’re second choice but you’ll do”). :) And I agree that Brockmann is definitely another good example of writing with this trope (I haven’t read Mayberry).
I keep thinking about it and I think in most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books emotional justice is not delivered. “The Song for Arbonne”, love it as I do has Urte de Miravalle, whose fate was just so unjust to me. Of course I suspect the writer would differ greatly, because I suspect he is not exactly concerned with justices and injustices delivered to individuals. After all “Tigana” was saved in “Tigana”, so who cares about proper gratitude and real apology to Erlein.
I suspect he would say that Urte got to be the hero, so who cares about him suffering all his life about Bertran and what Bertrain did. Etc, etc, etc – but yeah I love those books but I had been quite pissed off about the fates of my favorite characters at the end. NOT about tragedies (although of course I would like for them to not be tragic), but about them not getting satisfaction for wrongs done to them.
@EllenS: I completely agree with your statement, “However, a classic HEA is not always the goal. And that’s a valid artistic choice. I mean, I’ll probably still be upset but I wouldn’t feel ‘cheated’, per se.”
The McCaffrey example I used works well with this. I knew my expectations for Nerilka’s HEA was an invalid one for the genre (SFF, not romance), but I hoped for more for her, and couldn’t help feeling disappointed when it didn’t happen. That said, I didn’t feel “cheated” in sense that McCaffrey “owed” me a HEA with that story. In fact, her selfless love of Alessan fits with her character and makes sense in the context of that book, fitting with its major theme of sacrifice.
I have a difficult time believing in the HEA if the hero or heroine needed to grovel and did not or did not do so enough. Or when the heroine needs to do the groveling and the hero is the one who does or vice versa.
A good grovel doesn’t necessarily have to be the character suffering for a long length of time or embarrassing himself/herself in a public fashion. A good grovel needs to be the character truly being sorry for his/her actions. And not the “I’m sorry you were hurt” type of apology where the character isn’t really sorry but just saying what they think the other person wants to hear.
This is why romances where one of the characters cheats on the other rarely work for me. Or secret baby plots. How can a heroine ever make up for denying not only the hero but the child a father because she was mad at the hero? I’m not saying these stories never work for me. Like every trope there are books where they do. But if I’m reading a cheating or secret baby book nowadays the author has a real uphill battle to convince me of a HEA.
I’m not a fan of stories that have a power imbalance between characters (as a lot of YA I’ve tried seems to) which I think often stems from an imbalance on the emotional scale.
The first book I thought of as an example of good grovel as I was reading the essay was McNaught’s Kingdom of Dreams. I loved when bratty Jennifer end up on her knees declaring her allegiance to her husband in front of her horrible clan/family. I think McNaught does grovel pretty well since Almost Heaven is my favorite of hers because of the great emotional payoff at the end when the hero has to jump through numerous hoops to make amends to the heroine.
I agree with others that the sex of the character doesn’t matter as much as the context. I like strong male and female characters and one of my favorite things is when a strong character has the ability to admit when they’re wrong and make it right. Redemption stories are among my favorites.
I recall way back when I couldn’t wait to read Laura Lee Guhrke’s The Marriage Bed about an estranged husband and wife. The husband was a philanderer and she caught him and it broke her heart because she’d really been in love with him. I don’t recall much about it now except that there was no where near enough grovel on his part and I was deeply disappointed. I’m sure I still felt the emotional imbalance at the end.
This (the essay and the comments) is such a fascinating read, and I am loving the phrase ’emotional justice’. I have all sorts of thoughts that I am struggling to put into words, still a bit amorphous, but a few observations I can articulate just now:
Like library addict, I struggle with cheating and secret baby plots – the author has to do a really good job of making the char that does the cheating/secret keeping really sympathetic, and give them reasons I can get behind, if I am going to believe in any kind of HEA for the couple.
I did my time in the 90s, I’ve read enough bad secret baby stories that I kind of avoid them now, unless someone I really trust recommends it. (Although, one variation of this trope – secret miscarriage – is one I am more willing to read/accept. But I’m not sure why? Probably because it is rarely flagged in the blurb, so it is harder to avoid, but also, and I am aware I am straying into dangerous ground here, maybe because there is no child who was denied a relationship with their father and the emotional wreckage is only visited upon adults? And knowing/not knowing cannot change the outcome? I need to think about this more.)
Cheating is a big thing for me. The Cheater needs to be sufficiently aware of and remorseful for the pain they have caused, and suffer a similar level of betrayal and pain, or I cannot forgive it, even if the Cheatee (totally a word) does. In fact (and I know this says more about me than it does about the books I read), my distaste for cheating is such that I really do not like it if, once the MCs have been introduced to the reader and to each other (even if they have yet to develop any strong emotional attachment let alone make any declarations of exclusivity), there is on-page sex between one of the MCs and a character other than the one they are supposed to end up with. I get that it isn’t cheating, not really, but even if it isn’t infidelity technically, I just don’t like it. I’ll read it, and it isn’t a deal breaker for me, but the author has a lot to do to sell me on the couple after that.
Grovelling is good from any character that has amends to make. Tears are good. Self sacrifice is better. “I will say anything, do anything, to make this right, even if we can no longer end up together, because I have seen the error of my ways and must make reparations to you, even if it destroys me emotionally”? Yes, please. One character throwing themselves under the emotional bus for the sake of the other’s feelings is hugely satisfying.
I suppose this leads into something I think some people have touched on – for me, there isn’t just emotional justice in terms of equality/balance within the relationship between the MCs, there is also emotional justice in the sense of the covenant between author and reader. Some of the most dissatisfying reads I can think of are ones where hundreds of pages of angst have put me through the emotional wringer (which I do enjoy), and it is all wrapped up in the space of two paragraphs by the introduction of a new character, not previously even hinted at, who will be the hero of the next book in this series that I didn’t even know was going to be a series, because nowhere on the cover or in the blurb was there even a hint of series-ness. No. This is not acceptable. If you put me and your characters through a whole lot of emotional pain, there needs to be a dotting of I’s and crossing of T’s. Wrongs need to be made right, not glossed over and/or ignored. I get enough of the latter in real life – I’m looking for the former in my fiction.
@Sirius: For me it’s not being bloodthirsty and wanting revenge (though a book can certainly put me into that headspace as well.) More like the more suffering the better. ;-)
My most recent example of a lack of emotional justice (and which made the book a bit of a wallbanger for me) was The Game and The Governess by Kate Noble. I’ve loved some of her earlier books but I disliked Ned and Turner so much and they didn’t grovel nearly enough for my liking. For most of the book they were happily deceiving people and didn’t give it a thought. >.<
Fascinating discussion. I completely agree with @Amanda that a character’s display of understanding why what he or she did was wrong and acknowledgement that it was wrong is as important as any grovel or big gesture.
I also agree with @Anonymous that who I want to see grovel depends upon the specific situation and how I view it more than on gender. Even so, heroine grovels are more apt to annoy me than hero grovels. Heroes start out from a more secure position in society so their emotional vulnerability can serve as an equalizing factor.
@Marianne McA‘s comment about assassin romances is really interesting too. Sometimes I feel very similarly about assassin romances and other times I don’t. The assassin books I’ve enjoyed include Black Ice by Anne Stuart, Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series, and the Allegreto subplot in Laura Kinsale’ For My Lady’s Heart. These books work for me whereas some other assassin romances don’t, and I think it’s partly because these assassin characters pay a price for their positions and aren’t very happy people as a result. So that can also be a way of balancing the scale.
@JPeK: I read Nerilka’s Story after Moreta, but I still felt the same way. Nerilka deserved better.
I’m with Isobel Carr.
When heroes do things which in normal, real life are criminal, such as rape and non-consensual sex, forced submission, or engaging in non-consensual medical procedures, I need them to not only acknowledge their crimes as crimes, I have a very hard time forgiving them, even if they do that and grovel. I want them to suffer in measure with what they inflicted upon others. Suffer as in being convicted of their crimes and jailed, serve the hurt party financially and personally to the same level the crime incurred, lose any benefits they may have reaped from committing crimes.
Culprits are stories and series like ‘The Siren’, ‘Consequences’, practically everything Kirsten Ashley wrote, or ‘Real.’ The aforementioned ‘Falls Chance Ranch’ series also belongs into this whole group of stories where rape, abusive behaviour and violence get excused instead of balanced in justice. Too often the excuse is people having lots of ‘hot sex.’
To me it is shocking that so often there appears to be a lack of the ethical compass Robin outlined. Maybe a consequence of acclimatization?
@Anonymous: Yup. There was a Maisey Yates HP with a Sicilian mafia hero that completely failed to address this. His crimes had been a significant part of his backstory, and the effects of them were still evident in the community. The only person whose forgiveness he sought was the heroine’s, and we were supposed to believe that was enough. No way. He needed to turn himself in, do time, and then, maybe, he could start to think about an HEA. I really hated that book.
@Anonymous: I am not arguing with your general point about wanting criminal heroes to do time before they can have their HEA . In general I agree and for that reason usually won’t read about maphia heroes , however for me sometimes there are exceptions. Like J.Fally in “Bone rider” convinced me that Misha deserved his HEA doing exactly what he did and nothing more than that. But I want to ask the question about “Fall ranch”. Rape and abuse gets excused there? I know spanking features heavily but besides spanking where? I only read first book and so far did not continue but friend loves those books and I cannot believe she would recommend them to me multiple times knowing that rape is treated the way you describe? Thanks!
As I am Sirius’ aforementioned friend and someone who has read all the Falls Chance books, which is a WIP, I can reassure her and anyone else that there is categorically no rape by the characters in these stories, characters may have history of abuse in the past, but there are no graphic scenes shown. The stories deal with loving discipline relationships, they are not everyone’s taste but for me they contain very attractive characters in an appealing Wyoming ranch setting. The books are also free. I am addicted to these guys and the support they give each other.
@Raine: You explained that well. Thank you!
I couldn’t recall any rape when I read Anonymous’s comment, but I can see why some readers reacted negatively to the way the MC is introduced to the culture on the ranch (i.e., he has a lot of pressure placed on him to accept the domestic discipline or he might lose his position in his company; however, I accepted that in the context of his breakdown and inability to really care for himself, as well as the acknowledgement that he’s a genius and could probably get a great job anywhere if he chose to quit instead of finishing the program, which was an option). It appears on Goodreads that the majority of readers who tried the story either loved it (4 or 5 stars) or hated it (1-2 stars). For my part, it didn’t come off as particularly violent or coercive, but I understand why others might disagree.
That comment was about all the samples I gave.
It is a while ago that I read some of these ranch stories, so I can be vague only. But I remember there was a marked lack of consent. People medically treating someone using ‘domestic discipline’ of all things. That is a sexual practice and not therapeutic. He wasn’t given a real choice either. It was a choice of losing his job as CEO or going there, without any option of normal medical treatment. Wasn’t he separated from any means to leave or contact anyone else as well? Mobile phone taken, money taken, a ranch somewhere in the outback without any means to reach police or public transport? I may be wrong, but he then was worked into the ground and when he protested and wanted to leave, he was beaten until he saw the light.
I wonder whether there’s anyone who would like to be treated like this after a breakdown? Either go visit some polyamorous, gay ranchers, who will beat you up and treat you like a toddler, or you’re fired. A normal therapy is no option. Instead these guys will turn your sexual orientation from straight to gay and all of them will have nice butt sex with you. Healing by penis and by spanking your buttocks until you cry like a baby.
To me this is abuse and not romantic. The resulting sex is very questionable as well. Switch the gender from male to female mentally and it’s just unbelievably gross. That’s the sort of behavior which makes me want retribution. It isn’t justified or justifiable.
@Janine Ballard: I think heroine grovels are more apt to annoy me, but hero grovels annoy me more, if that makes sense? There are a lot more books in which I feel the heroine is having to grovel for things she should not have to apologise for, especially in historicals, and generally these leave me grumbling balefully about institutionalised misogyny and rape culture; but in the books where the hero is forced to a disproportionate grovelling, the apparent reasons he is supposedly in need of debasement tend to strike me as less a result of serious societal/cultural issues and more just sort of inexplicably ridiculous. (The only possible exception to the latter that is coming to mind is what happens in Julia Quinn’s *The Duke and I*, because of the nature of Daphne’s offence.)
@Anonymous & @Ros: You guys might like Jill Sorenson’s The Edge of Night in which (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the secondary hero, a teenage drug dealer born into a criminal family, does turn himself in to the police. I keep hoping she’ll write another book for Eric and Megan.
Can you give some examples?
Incidentally, I’m one of the few people who did not care for The Duke and I. I feel that if the hero doesn’t want children, his wishes should be respected. Bringing a a child into the world isn’t a small thing but a decision that should be made responsibly.
I would rather see either character who crossed boundaries and hurt the other grovel. I don’t care if it’s heroine or hero it’s who hurt whom. It doesn’t even have to be a main character.
Spoilerish: In Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful I wanted the hero’s best friend to grovel more for something he did to the heroine, I found almost unforgivable.
In Nora Roberts Bed of Roses, I wanted Emma to grovel for being a five year old throwing a hissy fit and turning their friends against him and not realizing she needed to get to know him better, etc.
I frequently wanted Roarke to grovel. In general, he’s an ass. I wouldn’t put up with his behavior.
It’s not a gender thing. It’s a who screwed up thing.
I also noticed that I think in every Courtney Milan novel the man has a contract obligation to grovel, even when he’s done nothing. For example in Unclaimed Jessica the whore decided based on the fact he was public figure to exploit Mark for purely selfish reasons, and Mark still had to be the one to grovel. That every or almost every Courtney Milan hero has to grovel makes me feel she hates men, and makes me not as interested in her books. (Although I am considering trying her again, since so many people enjoy her books.)
Yes, that would be something I could agree with. But then I tend to like Sorenson’s books a lot anyway already. I need to add that to my TBR pile. It sounds interesting and something very fresh and unlike the usual dross.
@Anonymous: I disagree that “practically everything Kristen Ashley wrote” “belongs into this whole group of stories where rape, abusive behaviour and violence get excused instead of balanced in justice. Too often the excuse is people having lots of ‘hot sex.’ ” For example, Tate from Sweet Dreams is a bounty hunter, Benny from The Promise owns an Italian restaurant and Max from The Gamble owns a construction business.
I’m also a little confused – is the excuse (as in “the excuse is people having hot sex”) you mention one made by the author? Or by the reader?
This probably says something not very nice about me, but I’m all about the grovel. I need major, deeply heartfelt grovel when a character has wronged another. Whoever did the dirty needs to grovel, although I think women characters are both more apt to grovel and more forgiving without requiring a grovel in return.
Linda Howard’s books (the earlier ones, at least) leap to mind immediately, although I could probably come up with a pretty long list of books by other authors that also left me vaguely unsatisfied. But in almost every LH book, the hero does something pretty bad, a terrible act of betrayal, to the heroine. Even when he says “sorry,” I almost never feel it’s commensurate with the level of the transgression. And the heroine forgives, often because she feels their physical bond compensates for the hero’s douchery. (In other words, the sex is too good to resist.) Aaargh. Sarah’s Child is a book that hits almost all my buttons–hero (Rome) married dead wife’s best friend because he needed a regular source of sex, got angry when Sarah became pregnant against his wishes (even tho it was equally his fault) and wouldn’t abort the child, treated Sarah and the baby like garbage, etc. I required massive, prolonged groveling from Rome and didn’t get a fraction of it. This is one of the books I rewrote in my mind (which I do) to have Sarah/baby leave Rome and move into an apartment above her shop and live happily ever after without him. (I can’t tell you how often I don’t want the hero and heroine to end up with one another at the end of books, but it’s a lot.) This was an extreme example, but still pretty consistent of my experiences with LH.
I like the term “emotional justice.” It sounds more rational and reasoned than the angry, visceral reactions I often have.
I’ve tried several of Ashley’s novels. Please show me one where the hero doesn’t sexually harass, or rapes, or mistreats women, or isn’t sexist, or behaves like the worst a-hole in the universe, or stalks the heroine or some person close to her, or behaves violently in assorted other ways. I’d also take one where the heroine isn’t a doormat or TSTL, mainly for falling for such a-holes as are Ashley’s typical heroes.
Tate may be a bounty hunter, but he also is a controlling misogynist incapable of treating a woman with respect. He wants a doormat instead, like so many Ashley heroes. He cheats, not just having sex, but also by not owning up to having children. That’s nowhere near acceptable. Don’t start me on any of the other books I read. I think I gave up on Ashley after three and a half books. It wouldn’t even have read as many except for being able to lend rather than buy.
What I meant is that apparently ‘hot sex’ is all the excuse needed to make such abusive heroes acceptable, be it to authors or readers. I can’t find myself agreeing with that. The only way such behavior could be forgiven is a hero who grovels, atones and, most importantly, changes.
@Janine: I hated that book so much, I can’t tell you. I’d bought the first four Bridgerton family books at once, and I did read the other three because I already had them, but I decided never to read another Julia Quinn after that.
One book had the hero and heroine both have important career-related events that conflicted. She had one last event before she quit her job; he needed to fly to the other side of the country, and it wasn’t just his livelihood at stake but also his brother’s family’s (including their kids). He went to fly, and all the other characters acted like he was pond scum, and he actually turned around at the airport where his connecting flight was and came back, and proceeded to grovel for… intending to do something vital to both his career and his relatives’ literal livelihood?
Another, a historical, had a heroine who was basically a lowborn con artist and a hero who was a duke, and she swindled her way into the family pretending to be a longlost daughter. She was kind of awful — not even because of the swindling, but she treated her alleged best friend really horribly. The book ends with him apologising for thinking less of her because she had been a servant. She, meanwhile, pretty clearly only feels remorse because she likes his family so, so much and they got mad at her when they found out she was a fraud.
Another one had a couple hook up one night in a snowstorm, and then the next morning the heroine goes ballistic because she thought this meant they were going to get married and he hadn’t thought much beyond the having sex. They had never discussed even dating exclusively — or at all — let alone marriage. He ended up having to grovel and propose to her. In a contemporary.
Those are the ones that particularly stick out in my mind as examples of ‘what was this author smoking when she wrote this.’ There have been others not coming to mind where the author basically has the heroine acting unreasonable to the point of utter irrationality, and then both the heroine and the text blaming the hero for acting like a normal human.
“It is a while ago that I read some of these ranch stories, so I can be vague only. But I remember there was a marked lack of consent.” – I am afraid you are remembering incorrectly.
” I may be wrong, but he then was worked into the ground and when he protested and wanted to leave, he was beaten until he saw the light.” – Um yes wrong again- Dale actually had to be stopped from working too hard and too fast.
You are qualifying everything you say but stating it dogmatically, I’d suggest you reread the books but I don’t think I could stand it.
After I wrote how I don’t read MC books, I came across this story: http://www.azcentral.com/news/azliving/articles/2012/07/13/20120713bikers-against-child-abuse-make-abuse-victims-feel-safe.html?page=1
Apparently there’s a biker gang that helps child abuse victims by helping them feel safe. I would read about these guys (and girls).
From your comment-
“It is a while ago that I read some of these ranch stories, so I can be vague only. But I remember there was a marked lack of consent.” – I am afraid you are remembering incorrectly.
” I may be wrong, but he then was worked into the ground and when he protested and wanted to leave, he was beaten until he saw the light.” – Um yes wrong again- Dale actually had to be stopped from working too hard and too fast.
You are qualifying everything you say but stating it dogmatically, I’d suggest you reread the books but I don’t think I could stand it. Dale is gay when he arrives at the ranch.
( I tried posting this earlier I apologise if I have duplicated but I am feeling quite strongly about this emotional justice debate : ) )
@Anonymous: I decided not to respond to your comment yesterday because while I clearly remembered nobody stopping Dale from leaving at the end and Dale always being gay I was fuzzy on several things which you claimed happened, so rather than make a fool of myself I decided not to post. But I can see that Raine posted and I know she knows all the books back and forth (not just the first one – and first one is the only one I have read as I said before) so I want to say this. Of course “spanking therapy” is not the equivalent to real psychological therapy! I am not sure if anybody would debate this premise with you – I sure will not. You (generic you) are either able to accept that in the universe of these books this IS at least part of the psychological treatment that characters get and which helps them, or not. I was not able to accept that, so I stopped after the first book – getting healthier because of spanking, well it makes me laugh and roll my eyes. Having said that, not being able to accept this premise does not make the lack of consent issues miraculously appear in the books IMO. As far as I am concerned they are not there. The most I can grant you (as an agree partially with you – obviously it is not my place to tell you what to think or not to think) is Dale coming to ranch not entirely because he wanted to. But sometimes very ill people are forced to start treatment which they do not entirely want to (intervention of the friends and families to start rehabs, this kind of thing) and Dale was very ill as the book began, I am also not sure how this premise could be debated (that he was ill). I am not talking about this treatment being real, working in real life, etc, etc – I am only saying that if some coercion was applied to start treatment (no matter how silly such treatment is, it works for this fictional universe), I do not have much problem with it. Other than that I do not remember any consent issues anywhere in the first book, not a single one.
Wow the discussion goes very interesting. I love to follow dearauthor, you guys giving me very good ideas. Thank you.
@Anonymous: Wow, that’s a whole pile of judgement there.
It’s perfectly fine for you to decide not to read any book by any author on any basis suits you. But you’ve read 3.1/2 and you’ve decided that all of her heroes are misogynist assholes?
I think you read a different book than I did because Tate never cheated on Laurie. He didn’t tell her straight away about his son but this was explained in the book and it made sense in context, especially given the fraught relationship he had with his ex.
I haven’t read all of KA’s books but in my experience, not one of her heroines was a doormat. Laurie gave as good as she got, Tyra pushed back, Laney was hell on wheels, Tabby was very forthright and Nina had Max running from the second he met her.
Maybe you and I just have different opinions of what a “doormat” is and it’s clear we have very different taste in books. And that’s FINE. As I like to say; vegemite.
However, you seem to have decided that the only reason anyone can like a book you don’t like is because it has hot sex in it and in doing so, you seem to be scorning books with hot sex in them and those who enjoy reading them. And I’m just not down with reader shaming.
@JewelCourt: Agreed! I *loved* that article and immediately wanted to write a story with them. Lucky for me, I live in Arizona, so I saw that article when it first came out and have already finished a story with a heroine who’s a member. :)
@Kaetrin: Agreed. It also isn’t much of an explanation. My Harlequin Presents loving friends and I enjoy books with extremely questionable heroes, and many of them don’t even have sex in them.
I hate to say it, but the older I get, the less I want to see groveling from *either* main character. If either of the MCs does something abominable enough to be grovel-worthy, then the story is not over, and their work is not done. I require an entire sequel with a whole quest in order to allow the character to prove that they learned their lessons and have changed for good.
I operate from the premise that characters only get love once they have done the bulk of the emotional work on their own, rather than getting that prize for *starting* that work. The older I get, the less enchanted I am with the idea that HEA is also a “project kickoff” to Fix Him (it’s usually him, but sometimes it’s her). That one of the mains has not won the prize of True Love, but rather a box of parts and a “some assembly required” asterisked disclaimer.