because the romance novel is written primarily by women, the heroes in them have been written to appeal to a woman's parameters for sexiness, desirability and compatibility. If I don't fall a little in love with the hero myself, then the novel is not as good for me. And what straight male reader wants to feel drawn to the man?!Laura Kinsale said something similar about the (female) romance reader’s relationship with romance heroes:
I have my own hunches about why the chemistry of reading a romance is so heavily weighted toward the male character. It is fairly obvious that the bottom line is sexual admiration: to me, a large part of it feels like a simple, erotic, and free-hearted female joy in the very existence of desirable maleness. Hey, women like men. (1992: 36-37)Radway, however, describes the relationship between reader and hero somewhat differently, saying that each romance:
provides vicarious emotional nurturance by prompting identification between the reader and a fictional heroine whose identity as a woman is always confirmed by the romantic and sexual attentions of an ideal male. When she successfully imagines herself in the heroine’s position, the typical romance reader can relax momentarily and permit herself to wallow in the rapture of being the center of a powerful and important individual’s attention. This attention not only provides her with the sensations evoked by emotional nurturance and physical satisfaction, but, equally significantly, reinforces her sense of self because in offering his care and attention to the woman with whom she identifies, the hero implicitly regards that woman and, by implication, the reader, as worthy of his concern (1991: 113)What I find interesting about this is not just that Radway doesn’t mention that the reader may have a physical, sexual, response to the hero (although perhaps that’s what’s hinted at when she mentions ‘physical satisfaction’), it’s also that she seems to be simultaneously saying that the reader is ‘in the heroine’s position’ and identifying with the heroine. There’s a big difference. In the first case, the reader is taking the place of the heroine, possibly imagining how it would feel to oust the heroine from the hero’s affections. In the second, she’s imagining herself as the heroine, wanting to be the heroine.
And what about readers who don’t do either of these things? I don’t want to deny the validity of Jennifer and Laura Kinsale’s reading experiences, but I don’t think the wish to fall in love with the hero is one that’s shared by all readers. Speaking for myself, I know I don’t fall in love with romance heroes. As a young teen I did have a crush on D’Artagnan (from The Three Musketeers) but neither Mr Darcy nor any other romance hero has ever made my heart beat faster. I think this is because in romances the author shows us (or should show us) that the protagonists have a good relationship, and that they love each other and are compatible. This being the case, it seems to me that the two are literally made for each other, and even supposing the hero weren’t fictional, any woman (other than the heroine) who fell in love with a romance hero would be headed for the pain of unrequited longings.
I’m not giving my feeling and experiences as an example because I’m convinced I’m representative (I suspect I’m not), or even because I think my reading experiences will be of great interest (I doubt that), I’m just bringing them up because I think it shows that just as there is a great deal of variety among romance novels, there is also variety among romance readers with regards to their reading experiences, and so one ought to be careful before making generalisations about the romance reader and what she (and the romance reader is generally assumed to be a she) likes, and why she reads.
Obviously a blog isn’t the appropriate place to carry out an academically rigorous study of romance readers, but I’ll ask a few more questions anyway. I wonder, how many readers feel the same way as Jennifer and Laura Kinsale? And do readers who feel that way want to be the heroine, or do they wish they could steal her man? Does everyone want to ‘fall a little in love’ with one of the main characters in a romance? Is it only heterosexual or bisexual women who do this while reading romances about heterosexual couples, or do male heterosexual readers fall in love with the heroine? Do gay male readers of romances about heterosexual couples fall in love with the hero? Do lesbians fall in love with heterosexual romance heroines?
I was also wondering if the reaction of falling in love with the hero is one which only occurs while reading the romance genre. Do readers who fall in love with the heroes of romances (or the heroines of romances) also fall in love with characters in non-romance novels? Is there something different about the way a reader engages with a romance? Does the fact that the story is about love make the reader more inclined to fall in love with one of the characters herself/himself?
Kinsale, Laura, 1992. ‘The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance’, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.
Radway, Janice A., 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).