Kate Hewitt left an interesting comment in response to my last post:
the bottom line seems, to me, to be that we want the characters in our fiction to reflect our own values and when they don't we find it frustrating or disappointing [...] every author is going to bring his or her own value system to his/her books, whether intentional or not. It's up to the reader to decide if he/she can accept the morals/values of the book he/she is reading and then enjoy it as fiction.Her comment raises so many questions about the values of romance readers, romance authors and of the genre itself, that I decided it was time to create a new space in which to discuss them.
The Romance Genre
According to Pamela Regis, every romance includes some degree of judgement about the society which forms the background to the lovers' struggle:
Near the beginning of the novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt. It always oppresses the hero and heroine. (31)Although the societies depicted in romances vary, one thing which does not is the high value placed on romantic love. According to the Romance Writers of America, it is essential for a romance to have
An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.What, though, does "emotional justice" mean? Some romance protagonists are "rewarded with [...] unconditional love" even though they have behaved towards other people in ways that they themselves later acknowledge to have been unjust.
Kate, in her initial comment, states that "every author is going to bring his or her own value system to his/her books, whether intentional or not" and Jo Beverley has written that "An honest writer must include her own philosophies in her work" (33). Readers should, however, be careful before making assumptions about authors' values. After all, characters may express opinions which are not shared by the author. In addition, Leslie Wainger's advice to romance authors raises the possibility that some romance authors are writing with their readers' (real or imagined) values in mind:
basic expectations that every romance reader shares and that you, as an author, implicitly promise to fulfill are simple and leave you a lot of room for creativity:Wainger's advice does seem somewhat problematic. Readers' relationship with heroines may be rather more varied than Wainger seems to be suggesting here and she doesn't define what "ethical" behaviour actually is. I wonder if she realised that there isn't a single standard of "ethical" behaviour and decided it would be far too difficult to try to define a single standard which would be acceptable to all readers.
A sympathetic heroine: The heroine is the key to every romance. The reader’s sense of identification with the heroine draws the reader into the book and keeps her reading. Your heroine needs to be sympathetic – strong without being hard, vulnerable without being weak, intelligent, ethical, interesting, capable (but not perfect), beautiful (but not unreal) – in short, a surrogate for your reader as she wants to see herself. [...]
A strong, irresistible hero: Both your heroine and your reader need to fall in love with the hero. He has to be strong without being overbearing (or borderline abusive), yet vulnerable enough to need the heroine; as intelligent, ethical, and capable as she is; fascinating; and, of course, good-looking (and good in bed, even if the reader never sees his skills). (19, emphasis added)
Bridget Fowler has observed that
most readers do not confuse the genre with realism. Moreover, the development of the romance suggests its readers are not passive. Its paradises change, along with women's new material experiences and their greater exposure to the arenas of modernity. Such readers are still active and critical thinkers who repudiate writers too removed from their own image of society. [...] I have shown that in Scotland certain writers are repudiated. For example, the link between Barbara Cartland's world-view and that of Thatcherism is both transparent to popular readers and the cause of Cartland's low reputation. The world of the dominant class she depicts is either seen as too alien to their experience or as the source of the poverty and social problems that harass them. (174)Readers, then, distinguish between fiction and reality. We know that the societies depicted in romances are not real and it seems to me that many romance readers tolerate a great deal which does not "reflect our own values." One reason for this may be the distance between fiction and reality. Another may be that romances tend to be written in a way which "draws the reader into the book" and encourages the reader to sympathise with the characters. Readers may also feel that the emotional benefits they derive from elements such as a high level of conflict, sexual tension and an "Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending" are sufficient to outweigh the discomfort felt when characters don't "reflect our own values." Or we may in fact read partly in order to encounter new perspectives, and different values.
Robin, responding to Kate, says that while she
cannot speak for other readers, [...] I definitely am not looking for characters to reflect my own values. In fact, I often love most those characters whose values are very different from my own. Discussing SEP's Ain't She Sweet with people this past week always brings this up for me, because Sugar Beth is a character I could not relate to *personally* but loved and rooted for and wanted to see her happy. In fact, SEP is one of those authors whose books alternately delight and horrify me, but whose skills as a storyteller and writer can take me places I might not otherwise want to go. And what a delightful experience it is to be taken to those new places, even when they're not places I'd ever want to go in real life.Clearly, though, some readers do have "hot buttons" which will stop them reading a book, and some of those "hot button" issues may relate to "values."
So, do you want the characters in romance novels to reflect your values? How often do they reflect your values? How much deviation from your values are you willing to tolerate? And what aspects of a novel are likely to increase your tolerance for characters who don't share your values?
- Beverley, Jo. "An Honorable Profession: The Romance Writer and Her Characters." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow P., 1999. 32-36.
- Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
- Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P., 2003.
- Wainger, Leslie. Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.