Thursday, June 28, 2007

What the Reader Brings to a Text

One of the things I've found most fascinating about the many discussions I've read and participated in on romance message-boards and blogs is the extent to which tastes differ, and the glimpses I catch of why that might be the case. I think a lot of it has to do with what readers (and authors) bring to the stories. Some of these things are quite often discussed, for example there are the authors accused of writing a 'Mary Sue' character or the theory of the 'placeholder heroine':
Placeholding and reader identification should not be confused. Placeholding is an objective involvement; the reader rides along with the character, having the same experiences but accepting or rejecting the character's actions, words, and emotions on the basis of her personal yardstick. Reader identification is subjective: the reader becomes the character, feeling what she or he feels. (Kinsale 1992: 32)
Reader-response theory goes a lot further than that (and I'll admit now that my knowledge of that theory is fairly minimal). It can
range from the [...] theories of Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden -- both of whom argue that although the reader fills in the gaps, the author's intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions -- to the relativistic analysis of Stanley Fish, who argues that the interpretive strategy of the reader creates the text, there being no text except that which a reader or an interpretive community of readers creates. (Henderson & Brown 1997)
I suppose my instinct would be to head for the end of the spectrum which holds that 'the reader fills in the gaps, the author's intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions'. What's been interesting me recently is where different readers see gaps and how they fill them. As an example, here's what one blogger, Heather, has to say: she prefers novels in which the heroes behave like 'Mr Darcy and pine for the women no matter how the women respond — and instead of retreating, the men change themselves (that is, their own faults) to win the love of the women'. Pride and Prejudice is a good place to start because clearly, as Sarah observed not so long ago, some people (usually non-romance readers) will deny that Austen's works are very similar to modern romances, but many romance readers can't imagine Mr Darcy as anything other than the ideal romance hero. Both groups, however, agree on certain issues, e.g. that he is called Mr Darcy and he marries Elizabeth.

When I read what Heather had to say about Mr Darcy, I was surprised. I'd never thought of Mr Darcy as someone who changed to win the love of a woman. I'd always thought of his change having come about as a reasonable response to justified criticism which he would have accepted had it come from any other person he respected, rather than an emotional response made in order to win the love of a particular woman. Clearly I come down on the 'sense'/reason rather than the 'sensibility'/passion side of the fence. And this was where I began to see how differing interpretations and emotional responses reflect the reader's own ideology, and by ideology I mean what Kinsale referred to above as the reader's 'personal yardstick' or 'the structure of assumptions which form the imaginative world of groups' (Lye 1997) or 'the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual' (OED). Authors bring their ideologies to the texts they create and readers, in their turn, bring theirs:
Texts include statements, assumptions, attitudes, which are intrinsically ideological, i.e. express attitudes towards and beliefs about certain sets of social and political realities, relations, values and powers. As a text is produced in a certain social and material milieu it cannot not have embedded ideological assumptions. The reader herself will have ideological convictions and understandings as well, often unrecognized. (Lye 1999)
These understandings which often go 'unrecognized' are sometimes challenged when we discuss texts with other readers, who hold different assumptions, or when the ideological assumptions of the author are so explicitly related that it's difficult not to notice them (though, of course, this is more likely to be the case for a reader whose ideology differs from that of the author). A reader with a similar ideology to the author's may simply feel a sense of comfort or belonging, and may feel that the book is one which he or she connects with emotionally. The reader may even feel that such values are universal. For example Dick, a poster at AAR, argued that
most men and women who have a close relationship, whether in romance fiction or otherwise, delight in the idea that the other member of the duo feels a sense of possession. And certainly, protectiveness is a part of the relationship, isn't it? Would anyone want it otherwise? [...] I still haven't read anything which changes my thinking: Heroes of romance fiction differ very little regardless of the setting.
And yet, does Edward Ferrars conform to this ideal? And what of the 'boyish, feminized male figure [which] was definitely eroticized by Mills & Boon authors of the 1920s' (Dixon 1999: 68)?

It seems to me that readers' responses to romances are shaped by the ideas they have about masculinity (and which behaviours and attitudes are considered heroic), femininity, passion, the family, duty, individualism, etc. Jayne Ann Krentz, for example, wrote that 'Men represent to women one of the greatest sources of risk they will ever encounter in their lives' (1992: 112) and that opinion underpins her belief that 'Romance novels are tales of brave women taming dangerous men' (1992: 113) yet even as she dismissed them, she had to acknowledge that the genre also contained 'politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right-thinking heroines' (1992: 113).

I'd like to conclude with a few excerpts in which the author's ideology on a particular issue seems particularly close to the surface. Here's a passage from Connie Brockway's As You Desire which may leave some readers sighing over the hero, Harry. Marta has withheld information from him concerning Desdemona's (the heroine's) safety but Marta:
needn't have worried about Harry's reaction to her duplicity. He'd had none.
Except for the information she'd provided, Harry had taken no notice of her actions at all. All of his being, his every mental faculty, centered on Desdemona. There was simply no room in that concentration for something so inconsequential as outrage over her [Marta's] actions. What would it be like to be the focus of such devotion?
Cal's hand cupped the curve of her shoulder and she covered his big, rough hand with her own. Pray God she'd know. (1997: 350)
And here's Kate Walker's description of why, in Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern romances (and, probably, elsewhere in the romance genre too), the revenge plot is in fact:
an expression of an alpha hero’s male passion and power. I’d like to take this one stage further and say that it’s more – much more – the expression of his passion than anything else. His passion for honour, for justice, and – ultimately – for the heroine.
Or how about this conversation in which two happily-married men are trying to instruct the hero on how to understand his estranged wife, a lesson they present indirectly by recounting anecdotes and making generalisations about women:
When they clam up on you, it's a danger signal. What you've got to do is get them talking, about anything, and worm it out of them. It'll all come flooding out, on a burst of tears likely as not, but at least you get to know what's eating them. You may say what you will about women never being silent, I'd rather have them talking. A silent woman is a dangerous thing. She's sitting there, tallying up points against you. You can see it in her eyes. Thing to do is keep at them till it comes out. They want to tell you. They're dying to throw your faults in your face, and it don't take a whole lot of urging. (Gallant 2004: 90)
  • Brockway, Connie, 1997. As You Desire (New York: Dell).
  • Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, 1992. Edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Dixon, jay, 1999. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (London: UCL Press).
  • Gallant, Jenny, (Joan Smith) 2004. Lady Hathaway's House-Party. Electronically published in 2004 by Belgrave House, but originally published by Fawcett Coventry in January, 1980.
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, pp. 31-44.
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, pp. 107-114.
The image is of Don Quijote, reading. I found it on Emeritus Professor Fred F. Jehle's webpages. The engraving is by Gustav Doré, from an 1888 Italian edition of the novel and contributed by Claudio Paganelli. Links to more of the illustrations of this edition are available on the same page. Don Quijote comes to identify so fully with the ideology present in his chivalric romances that he fails to distinguish between fantasy and reality and sets out on his own quest.

Paintings of readers are analysed in William B. Warner's essay 'Staging Readers Reading' and he observes that
Anyone surveying the Dutch and French genre paintings and prints of the 17th and 18th century [...] will quickly discover the currency of images of readers reading. From old men reading grand folios in solitude to young women absorbed in their novels, the paintings and prints of the period stage reading as inviting, compelling, and sometimes dangerous.
The essay includes images of the paintings, some depicting readers of didactic texts while others show the effects of sampling more erotic novels.


  1. I'm much more on your side about Darcy. Sure, the criticism comes from Elizabeth, but he changes not because of that but because he recognizes that it's correct criticism and he's been in the wrong and that it's moral and right for him to change. That it comes from Lizzy gives the criticism more credence, but it's the very FACT of the criticism itself that pushes him to change, not that it comes from Lizzy.

    And, if you think about it, that makes him a much more moral person. If he were changing just for Lizzy, he's not nearly as moral and it perpetuates the myth of changing for someone, rather than changing for yourself.

    As for the reader creating the text, I think Fish goes just a leetle bit too far, but I can see where he's coming from. You can posit a generic reaction to a text by a generic reader, but those never actually exist, and every single person who reads is going to have a slightly different reaction to exactly the same text. They're even going to react differently when they read it a second or third time--same reader, same text, different reading experience. So at what point does the text "exist"? Cool stuff to think about.

    This is also why I like the reading boards, because, wow, people read for different reasons than I do. And I think this is what Radway et al didn't realize. She posited Chodorow's theory of nurturance, and I think she was right....for some that time. Or even for some readers now, but not for the majority now and certainly not for me ever.

  2. Great post, Laura.

    It reminds me of the concept that you can take away from art only what you bring to it -- somehow, it just hadn't *consciously* occurred to me that the same would also apply to fiction. Much food for thought. And thanks for all the links for further exploration of this idea.

  3. I held off replying because both of you had your own perspectives/thoughts triggered by reading my post (and thanks for the food for thought you both provided) so I didn't want to write back too soon, in case that closed off discussion.

    Blogging and getting comments back is a very thought-provoking and useful exercise (she said, pompously).

  4. That it comes from Lizzy gives the criticism more credence, but it's the very FACT of the criticism itself that pushes him to change, not that it comes from Lizzy.

    This is my take also. Darcy thinks of himself as a gentleman, so it's the idea that he is NOT gentlemanly that creates the change in him. I read this passage as about Darcy's sense of self, though he graciously acknowledges that Lizzy made him see it:
    "The recollection of what I then said -- of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it -- is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: 'Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.' Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice."

    I think Darcy's personal fantasy is to live in the vein of the famous Richard Lovelace poem :)
    I could not love thee, dear, so much,
    Loved I not honor more.

    But then, I bring that to the text: I'm a sucker for that combination. A man of strong moral compass who listens to others... swoonworthy.

  5. Wow, I gotta totally take the other side--I don't think Darcy would have given a whit for any criticism of his conduct, which he was so inordinately proud of anyway, if Elizabeth hadn't told him he wasn't worth her time. He was trying to mate, and the mate he chose, against his own judgment, resoundingly rejected him based on his obnoxious behavior. He was brought to his knees--and to self-realization--not by a mere idea or critique, but by being shamed by this woman who turned out to matter to him. He wanted her but he didn't get her because of his boorish pride and snobbery.

    It's not the mere discovery that he behaved unlike a gentleman that changes him, it's HER rejection of that behavior. Hers only. He'd have gone on being a snob for decades no matter what anyone told him, because he had no reason to care what anyone else thought of his behavior. E alone made him care what she thought of him, and care that he could hurt her with "ungentlemanly" words.

    So I'd interpret this to mean that he changed for her and because of her. He meant to be worthy of her even if she wouldn't have him.

    I don't consider it a myth at all that people change for other people, in fact I think that's often the catalyst for change--the realization that the person you love is worthy of better from you. This seems to me not only moral, but a lot more human and deeply felt than just deciding on behavior based on a set of imposed social dictums regarding "gentlemanly" behavior.

    That's my reader take. ;)


  6. LK, I didn't mean to come down completely on the side of stuffed-shirt honor. It's clearly Elizabeth's criticism that stings Darcy into realizing what he's become - in a way that others' criticism could not have. I like the way you put it: Darcy certainly experiences that "realization that the person you love is worthy of better from you".

    But I don't read Darcy as being ultimately motivated by E. He says he was raised to be a gentleman, and I think living up to that self-image is a huge part of his character. Only E could have made him take a hard look in the mirror, but surely the work of changing his ways depended on his own will to regain his self-respect, regardless of whether he ever saw her again.

  7. He was trying to mate, and the mate he chose, against his own judgment, resoundingly rejected him based on his obnoxious behavior. He was brought to his knees--and to self-realization--not by a mere idea or critique, but by being shamed by this woman who turned out to matter to him.

    I think the concept of the hero being 'brought to his knees', while applicable in many romances, is less so in P&P, unless one thinks of both protagonists as being 'brought to their knees'. Elizabeth is also made to recognise the faults in the way she has behaved, since she too is guilty of pride (in her own discernment) and prejudice (against Darcy). It is only when she thinks she has lost him for ever that she 'was humbled, she was grieved' and she

    began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. (Chapter 50)

    That speaks to what you have to say about people changing

    for other people, in fact I think that's often the catalyst for change--the realization that the person you love is worthy of better from you. This seems to me not only moral, but a lot more human and deeply felt than just deciding on behavior based on a set of imposed social dictums regarding "gentlemanly" behavior.

    I think what's being said in that quotation from P&P is that each possesses qualities which will assist the other in achieving positive change, but that positive change is couched in terms of qualities which would be considered 'gentlemanly' or 'well-bred'.

    In any case, if you decide that 'the person you love is worthy of better from you', how do you know what constitutes 'better' except by reference to societal norms? For example, in a society where polygamy is the rule, treating your wife 'better' might mean ensuring that you treat both wives equally well. Or in a society where a man has control of his wife's property, 'well' might involve ensuring that she has a good set of trustees and that her husband's will provides for her upkeep after her death. A woman from a society where monogamy is the norm and where married women have the right to own property might consider neither of these to be adequate or good treatment. So clearly ideas about relationships and how to behave within them are shaped by social norms and ideals.

    I also think that while pleasing a spouse or potential spouse may be a strong incentive to change, it's not necessarily going to be enough to ensure that the change is permanent unless the person who's changing does so because he or she recognises that the change is good in itself. The initial intensity of passion/desire often wanes and if a person's change was primarily made to please their partner then as desire wanes, they may stop making an effort to behave 'well' and revert to their original patterns of behaviour.

  8. I came upon this blog b/c of a search for Laura Kinsale, author.

    If she sees this comment, I would like to email her or view her blog to talk about her writings (as a fan).

    I have tried to sign up for her website, but it is inactive.

    Thank you !! email cornalijn at