In the introduction to How Well Do Facts Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010) Mary Morgan explains that sometimes accepted "facts" are false or unreliable. While the spread of facts is to be welcomed, that of false "facts" is more troubling:
Constraints on the travels of facts may be seriously detrimental to our well-being. Yet the free market may be equally problematic. The internet is such a free market, but one in which - as is well known - it is difficult to recognise trustworthy facts from untrustworthy ones, an age-old problem of open (or free) product markets that has lead to their habitual regulation, for example to prevent the use of poisonous additives to make bread white, or, in the case of travelling facts, to regulate the claims made for the efficacy of medicines.Chapter 16 of How Well Do Facts Travel?, which focuses on the romance genre's alpha male, is by Heather Schell, and is available online (in a form which does not include the official pagination). That chapter and a recent post by Jessica at Read React Review about evolutionary psychology both emphasise the importance of examining one's evidence carefully.
Jessica's post raises some questions about the methodology used by evolutionary psychologists and was written in response to a recent post about the romance genre by evolutionary psychologist Maryanne Fisher (based on some research I've already analysed). Jessica also adds that "folks might be interested to know that several HQN authors, such as Sharon Kendrick and Penny Jordan, felt very positively about the study" by Fisher. I'm not sure that's an entirely fair assessment of what Kendrick and Jordan reportedly said: Kendrick's comment that "[Their] research into book titles shows that women gravitate towards ones which depict a loyal, fit, rich and sexy bloke. Funny, that! That would be as opposed to a commitment-phobe wastrel who plays around?" certainly isn't devoid of irony, and it isn't an explicit endorsement of the evolutionary psychology underlying the study's conclusions.
Nonetheless, Jordan's mention of
a bedrock instinctive 'feeling' within women that a man who is male and powerful enough to be desired by many women (ie not a stalker type) and who wants to commit himself exclusively, is the gold standard when it comes to the foundations for couple happinessis not inconsistent with evolutionary psychology, which would explain such a "bedrock instinctive 'feeling'" by reference to the species' evolutionary past.
Schell's analysis of the romance genre's alpha male suggests reasons why some romance authors may find the evolutionary psychologists' approach to the genre attractive. Unfortunately, or perhaps appropriately given that it appears in a book about trustworthy and untrustworthy facts, Schell's account appears to contain some unreliable facts about the genre, including an assertion that "Harlequin [...] owns almost every romance publisher in North America, as well as Mills and Boon." I imagine that "fact" would come as rather a surprise to readers of single-title romances and romances published initially as ebooks.1 Schell states that
Before the early 1980s, there were not many facts about romance novels. [...] Romance novels had not received any of the attention that scholars had begun to direct towards other types of mass culture; there was thus no contention among academics about what these novels meant. Romance writers themselves weren’t engaged in any collective soul-searching about the meaning of their work, either, in part because the conditions of their labour weren’t such as to foster dialogue: Romance novels were written by hundreds of women working in isolation, without agents, connected individually to their publishing houses through correspondence and through the written guidelines to plot and character (i.e., the “formulas”) to which prospective authors had to adhere. The facts about romance novels in the 1970s were limited to industry-generated data about sales and distribution.This account appears to overlook Peter Mann's 1969 survey of Mills & Boon readers (unless any information about readers counts as "data about sales and distribution") and any analysis of the genre published during the 1970s, including Germaine Greer's scathing attack on it in The Female Eunuch and a variety of articles about Gothic romances. Schell also leaves unmentioned the rather important fact that
That situation changed dramatically in the 1980s, for two reasons: romance writers organised, and scholars began to write about the genre and generate facts about what it meant. First, in 1980, Romance Writers of America (RWA) was founded.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association was set up in 1960 [...].Schell then positions Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (a volume of essays by romance writers which was edited by Jayne Ann Krentz) as "a multifaceted rebuttal of feminist criticism" of the sort to be found in Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance. At the heart of that rebuttal is the
They wanted respect for their genre. In her inaugural address, Miss Robins said that although romantic novels, according to the libraries, gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did. This had to stop. (Romantic Novelists' Association)
Alpha Hero. In an essay entitled “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness,” Krentz described alpha males as “the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes … at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels.… These are the heroes who carry off the heroines in historical romances. These are the heroes feminist critics despise” (Krentz 1992b, 108–9). Note that Krentz defined the Alpha Hero in two contexts: as he related to romance novels and to feminist critics. Insofar as he would come to be used as the fact that definitively rebutted feminist criticism, the Alpha Hero was indeed the feminist critics’ enemy. She did not take credit for naming this hero, but suggested merely that he was “what has come to be known in the trade as the alpha male” (1992b, 107). In another chapter, Laura Kinsale cited Krentz as the source of the term and quoted an earlier definition of the alpha-male hero: the “retrograde, old-fashioned, macho, hard-edged man” (1992, 39). Kathleen Gilles Seidel, in the same volume, offered a slightly different origin story: “The term ‘alpha male’ came into use, I believe, because some authors were engaged in a struggle with editors about a certain type of hero and needed a vocabulary for the discussion” (1992, 178). Seidel liked the term in part because she saw it as “the only piece of jargon that has originated from the authors themselves” (1992, 178). None of these stories acknowledge the alpha male as a construct originating in a scientific community.I'd like to quote Seidel in full and in context, because I believe she may be transmitting an unreliable fact. She writes that "what makes romance heroes romantic" is that "They surprise you, they unsettle you, they bring drama and excitement, but in the end they make you feel safe" (163). Her comments about the term "alpha male" appear in a footnote to that statement:
Which aspect of the hero is emphasized the most determines whether he is an "alpha male" or a "wimp." What interests me about this distinction is that, so far as I know, this is the only piece of jargon that has originated from the authors themselves, even though we are a close-knit community with astonishing lines of communication.There is, however, an alternative story of the romance genre's adoption of the term "alpha" which both challenges the view that it "originated from the authors themselves" and "acknowledge[s] the alpha male as a construct originating in a scientific community":
I view this lack of jargon as evidence of two things. First is the absolute sincerity with which we view our books. Glib, dismissive jargon does not feel appropriate. Second is that we view each book as unique. What matters to us is how each book differs from the others, something that jargon does not account for.
The term "alpha male" came into use, I believe, because some authors were engaged in a struggle with editors about a certain type of hero and needed a vocabulary for the discussion. (178)
Although the modern Mills & Boon romance, tied to a specific formula, did not yet exist in the 1930s, it is apparent that Charles Boon did set down a few ground rules for his authors. Some have survived, and were passed down through the years in the firm by two names: 'Lubbock's Law' and 'the Alphaman'. Both still have an impact today. [...] The 'Alphaman' was based on what Alan Boon referred to as a 'law of nature': that the female of any species will be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, or the Alpha. (McAleer 149-150)In an earlier essay by McAleer we find the alpha male contrasted with the "wimp" (but note the lack of reference to Charles Boon):
The two main company guidelines for writers (still in use today) are called 'Lubbock's Law' and The Alphaman'. Lubbock's Law endorses the views of the literary critic Percy Lubbock, who argued that stories should be written from the heroine's point of view; that would promote reader identification and increase suspense and interest accordingly. The Alphaman', according to the Boon brothers, is based upon a 'law of nature': that is, the female of any species will always be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, the alpha. In other words, the hero must be absolutely top-notch and unique. The wimp type doesn't work. Women don't want an honest Joe,' Alan Boon said. (275)If McAleer's facts are correct, then it begins to seem unlikely that Krentz was, as Schell suggests, "the author who introduced the term 'alpha male' to the romance community" and Schell would also be incorrect in stating that "Feminist literary criticism was the original goad that prompted romance writers to seek alternative explanations of romance novels’ appeal, and, via a somewhat indirect path, led to their discovery of the Alpha Hero." Of course, it might be that American romance authors adopted the term entirely independently of any input from the Boons and the editors who'd worked for them at Mills & Boon. It's possible, I suppose, since for quite a long time after Harlequin took over Mills & Boon the company didn't have many US authors.
An earlier date for the adoption of the term "alpha" (whether in the form "Alphaman," "alpha male" or "alpha hero") to describe a particular type of romance hero would not invalidate Schell's facts about the spread of the term in the US around the time of the publication of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, nor its definition in that context. The Boons' version(s) of the Alphaman, based on their belief that the "laws of nature" which apply to many species of animals also apply to humans, may have differed from the alpha males created by romance authors who, Schell suggests, were influenced by evolutionary psychology, as evidenced by their references to 'cave days' and 'the ancestral hunter' in descriptions of the alpha hero. On the other hand, even if they weren't aware of Boon's term for him, it seems impossible that US authors could have remained unaware of the Mills & Boon "Alphaman" as a character type, since Harlequin had been publishing romances edited in in the UK by Mills & Boon for some considerable time before the publication of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.
Schell's focus on evolutionary psychology as the unmentioned source of the "alpha" hero, and her assumption that he emerged in response to feminist criticism of the genre, leads her to conclude that
once the battle with academic feminism was over, there simply was not as much need for the facts about sexual strategies. Even as the animal behaviour model gained ascendancy in American popular culture, the Alpha Hero’s star began to fade within the romance writing community.and
No longer a staple in mainstream romance, the Alpha Hero survives primarily in the paranormal subgenre, in which, in his dual role of monster and lover, there is no doubt that he is a fantasy character and not a fact.I suspect that many romance authors and readers would be rather surprised to learn that alpha heroes survive "primarily in the paranormal subgenre." Of course, it depends on how one defines the "alpha" hero. If one assumes an "alpha" hero must be based on cavemen and male hunter-gatherers, then perhaps that's true. But if the term "alpha" is being used primarily as the opposite of "wimp" (i.e. "beta"), or as a shorthand for a range of qualities which make him "absolutely top-notch and unique" then there is room for the term itself to continue to have relevance, even as the heroes to which it refers change over the decades.
I have the feeling, though, that Schell's real interest is in the "facts" of evolutionary psychology, and all the preceding facts (both reliable and otherwise) about the romance genre are given in order to provide background for her analysis of the ways in which evolutionary psychologists have attempted to use the romance genre as proof that their theories are correct:
the truth status of the Alpha Hero facts for evolutionary psychology is based on the facts’ freedom from the influence of human culture. If instead it was clearly understood that the romance community had adopted and perpetuated the Alpha Hero facts, then the heroes of romance novels might cease to embody the facts. The novels would no longer look like “a window into our natural preferences” (Salmon 245) – that is, a clear, transparent, unmediated view of our true selves, untainted by culture. Even if the Alpha Hero facts could survive, they would be messier, equivocal facts, tainted with human intent.If it was the Boons, rather than Krentz, who popularised the concept of the "alpha" hero, Schell's case is perhaps even stronger, since McAleer provides clear evidence of the ways in which the Boons provided their authors with considerable editorial direction.
Has anyone else got some reliable facts about when or how the term "alpha" came to be used to describe romance heroes? Has the meaning of the term changed over time? And do you think the alpha hero himself is in decline, or has he just evolved quite quickly since the 1980s?
- McAleer, Joseph. "Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950." Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.
- McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
- Morgan, Mary S. "Travelling Facts." How Well Do "Facts" Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Ed. Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. [Quotations from unofficial version available here (pdf).]
- Schell, Heather. "The Love Life of a Fact." How Well Do "Facts" Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Ed. Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. [Quotations from unofficial copy available here (doc).]
- Seidel, Kathleen Gilles. "Judge Me by the Joy I Bring." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 1992. 159-179.
1 I also find the following description of single-title romances rather unsatisfactory: "Single-title novels can be longer, sometimes offering Dickensian casts and plots that span generations." It seems to me that if romantic novels contain plots (not simply "casts") which "span generations" they'd be classified as romantic sagas rather than as romances, since romances focus on a central romantic relationship (although they may also depict secondary romantic relationships between other characters).
The image illustrating human evolution came from Wikimedia Commons.