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.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:
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)
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.
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.