In the responses to my most recent post
we've been exploring how different readers relate in different ways to their reading material. GrowlyCub, for example, commented that
I get intensely involved with the story lines and characters. And I've literally thrown books against the wall and been horribly upset, even though I know very well the story and characters are fictional
whereas AgTigress revealed that
I enjoy reading fiction, regarding it as a pleasant leisure activity, but it is clear that I simply do not become emotionally engaged with it to anything like the same degree as other readers. I actually find it quite hard to imagine being caught up in a fictional tale in the same way as the rest of you. I am always removed, standing back, from what I am reading, in the sense that I am an onlooker, never a would-be participant, and therefore never become deeply emotionally involved.
This has brought to mind a discussion Tumperkin and I had not so long ago about heroes, heroines, and how readers relate to them. First of all, Tumperkin pondered
whether [the] heroine represents for the reader what she wants to be while the hero represents what she desires. For both, it's aspirational but a different type of aspiration.
and she later observed that
one of the things that I love about romance [is] that the things readers like are so very often not the thing itself but what it represents
I think her second point may be very important in untangling the ways in which some readers respond to romances. If we accept that some things and people in romance may have meanings on more than one level, we need to provide more layers of explanations. Some readers may find that romances evoke responses on two or more levels simultaneously, while at other times, or for other readers, responses may only be evoked on only one of the possible levels.
Thus, in addition to recognising that some readers have much more profound emotional responses than others, we need to bear in mind different ways of relating to the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Readers who relate to the characters and their situations in a more literal way, for example, may have very different responses to a scene of forced seduction than will readers who respond to the same scenario as though it was a sexual fantasy.
It may also be that different readers seek out different books, with different types of characters, in order to get the kind of experience they prefer. Tanya Gold suggested that
Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance.
Michelle Styles, who had been giving Tanya advice on how to write a Mills & Boon, later said on her blog
the heroine as a conduit is something I learnt from the editors years ago. With Modern/MH [Harlequin Presents in the US], the heroine is the conduit. With Romance [the M&B and Harlequin Romance line], the reader walks in the heroine's shoes.
On the most obvious level of sexual attraction, a heterosexual female reader might be expected to want to be the heroine i.e. she wants to take the place of the heroine, and experience much of what the heroine experiences, but there's obviously a difference in the level of identification with a "conduit" and with someone in whose shoes one walks. In the guidelines to authors who wish to write for the Romance line
, the editors ask
Do you want to walk in your heroine’s shoes?
We celebrate women: their lives, triumphs, families, hopes, dreams…and most importantly their journey to falling in love. These are heroines every woman can relate to, root for, a friend you can laugh with and cry with. There should be a sense that the story really could happen to you!
Readers of this line seem to be expected to identify with the heroine. In the guidelines for the Modern line, however, the editors state that
Modern Romance is the last word in sensual and emotional excitement. Readers are whisked away to exclusive jet-set locations to experience smouldering intensity and red-hot desire. [...] A Modern Romance is more than just a book; it’s an experience, an everyday luxury. Let the pleasure and passion envelop you as you take a ride in the fast lane of romance!
This is the heroine as conduit, as a "placeholder" who permits the reader herself to be "whisked away" to experience "desire", "pleasure and passion."
Whether the heroine is identified with, or is a purer form of placeholder/conduit, there seems to be some consensus that
the reader [...] does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine. The reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine's place. The reader measures the heroine by a tough yardstick, asking the character to live up to the reader's standards, not vice versa. (Kinsale 32)
I'm not sure that placeholding and identification can be entirely separated out, because readers perhaps would prefer not to be put in the place of a heroine who acts in ways they dislike.
Lisa Kleypas [...] firmly believes, based on her own experience, that the heroine is indeed a placeholder for the reader:
I believe the heroine is the placeholder [...]. I've gotten so many comments throughout my career from readers who complain about the heroine's actions in terms of "I wouldn't have made the choice she did ... she didn't react like I think she should have ... why didn't she just ..." and all of these comments are evidence to me that the reader generally experiences the story from the heroine's POV even when the hero's POV is strongly represented.
And it's the trickiest part as an author to create a heroine that most readers will like, and it's not always possible. (Wendell and Tan 60-61)
It's tricky in part because some readers want to identify with the heroine, but at the same time the characterisation mustn't be too obtrusive, lest it prevent some readers from slipping easily into her place. These readers want the novel to read as though it were their own story, enabling them to fall in love with the object of the own (as well as the heroine's) desires: the hero. To quote Tanya Gold again,
I can have virtual sex with a non-existent man who is made of paper. So I retreat to my bed with The Venetian's Moonlight Mistress and live in a perfectly etched fantasy world where I get everything I want.
If, however, we look at the hero, not as himself (i.e. as a sexually attractive male) but in terms of what he represents, the relationship between the reader and the characters looks rather different. According to Cohn,
Romance fiction tells the story of the heroine and to that extent romance is about the heroine. But the dominant character in contemporary romance is always the hero. In the character of the hero inhere the excitement, the glamour, and the power of the desired. [...] The contemporary hero is a fantasy construct [...]. For romance readers he represents the satisfaction of all those desires that our culture both fosters and disappoints for women. Our culture values individualism, success, money, power, but has traditionally granted only to men the right to pursue them. (Cohn 41)
Readers, then, might still desire the hero but, as Laura Kinsale has suggested, they may also desire to be
him in order to experience the "satisfaction of all those desire" that he, as a romance hero, can experience:
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...], can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (37)
But if the hero represents all the power and emotions denied to women and which women readers desire to incorporate into their own lives, what does that mean for the heroine? What does she represent? Kleypas notes that "a heroine cannot be a bitch and be afforded the same forgiveness [as would be afforded a hero who was "a complete jerk"]. I still haven't decided why - it's possible that most readers like the heroine to be an idealized version of themselves?" (Wendell and Tan 61). Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie have written that
Women in day-to-day life face a lot of pressure to be the “right kind of women” (i.e., the ones men want). For celebrity women, the heat is turned up a lot … because, of course, celebrity women are the yardstick with which people measure the women they know, the yardstick by which the rules of sexiness, attractiveness, and appropriateness are determined.
Perhaps the romance heroine often resembles the "right kind" of celebrity women in that she may not be exactly who we as readers want to be (because at least some readers would like to have more freedom to experience the hero's "masculine" emotions), but she's who we as readers feel culturally pressured to be. She's the ideal to which we can never match up but against which we judge ourselves and other women. Sometimes she's a more accessible, relatable, ideal than others: some heroines are less than perfectly beautiful, for example, and some have minor character flaws (she's adorably clumsy! she's a little bit forgetful!) but taken as a whole, heroines aren't generally permitted to have the kind of serious flaws that heroes have.
So at this level, if the heroes represent what we want to be, and the heroines represent what we (the mostly female readers) feel we ought to be (in order to be "good", socially acceptable women), we're offered freedom during the course of reading the novels to experience "masculine" emotions, but we're also being reminded of those outside pressures to conform to feminine ideals.
I should perhaps conclude by admitting that, when I read, I'm neither the hero nor the heroine. I don't enter into the hero and heroine's sensual experiences
, even though I may sympathise with them in their pain, or rejoice with them in their happiness. I'm an emotionally-involved fly on the wall, albeit one who (a) has the power to mind-read and (b) feels she might be more socially acceptable if she looked or behaved more like the heroine (people can have such negative responses to flies!). Looking back at a post I wrote several years ago, about voyeurism as part of romance reading
, I wonder if my preference for romances in which the bedroom door is kept shut is due at least in part to being a fly who conforms to certain social norms; I feel as though I ought to give the protagonists some privacy. I was also intrigued by a possible conclusion that could be drawn from Laura Kinsale's statement that "When placeholder and reader identification merge, the experience of the story is utterly absorbing and vital; analytical distance recedes" (35). Could it be that flies find it easier to be literary critics?Edited to add
: Had I not been so busy thinking about the implications of being a fly, I would have asked a few more questions, so here they are:
Do you read in the same way across different genres? Or does placeholding only work for you in romance?
The theories about readers' responses to romances tend to assume that most readers are heterosexual women but of course this excludes other possibilities. How do different variations in reader and protagonist gender and sexual orientation affect the reading experience? Tania Modleski, for example, has written that after an "encounter" (26) with a
woman from my past I found myself as I read the lovemaking scenes identifying with the lover of woman as well as the woman herself and found myself vicariously experiencing the touch, taste, and smell of a woman's body. (26-27)
There are also plenty of female readers and authors of romances about two male protagonists.
If you're male, how does that affect your reading of romances with regard to identification and placeholding? What if there are two male protagonists in a romance? And do you read romances differently from other genres?
- Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.
- Edison, Laurie Toby and Debbie. "Women Athletes: Choose Between Strong and Sexy." Feministe 23 August 2009.
- Gold, Tanya. "Confessions of a secret Mills & Boon junkie." The Guardian 11 Sept. 2009.
- Kinsale, Laura. "The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 31-43.
- Modleski, Tania. "My Life as a Romance Reader." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 15-28.
- Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009.
The image was created by Egon B and I downloaded it from Wikimedia Commons.