So I’ve been thinking about heroes lately. Actually, I think about heroes an awful lot — they’re my favourite romance-related topic to discuss with fellow readers, because they’re so controversial. People love to hate heroes, and they love to love them, but rarely do people love and hate the same ones. What works for some readers doesn’t work for others, and what one reader finds romantic another will find cruel, overbearing, weak, cheesy, or silly. And a romance novel can survive many things: annoying heroines, TSTL behaviour, wallpaper settings, but a bad hero? Never. Heroes — the great divider (and conversation starter!) for romance readers.
One hero that I really loved recently featured in My Reckless Surrender by Anna Campbell. Ashcroft is every inch the noble man, but his reticence hides a patient, strong-willed man who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to go after it, even if it means risking rejection and humiliation. It seems at odds when combined with his pride, but his self-awareness, his willingness to go to difficult lengths to get what he knows he needs, really spoke to me as a reader. I loved the idea that he isn’t as he seems, and I loved the idea that he recognises that he needs his heroine. I really loved the idea that he is willing to sacrifice some (or all) of his pride to get her. Excuse me while I sigh a little.
Sighing aside, I started thinking about why Ashcroft worked so well for me. The answer is kinda obvious — he embodies traits that I find admirable, and behaves in a way that appeals to me on a relationship level. I suppose he works for me because he mirrors back to me what I find appealing when considering a mate. In my fantasies, a hero is willing to give chase, knows what he wants, goes after it (or in this case, her) with everything he has, because he knows that his life will not be as fulfilled without her. This self-awareness and self-sacrifice speaks to me of true commitment and deep love. So I am all over it when an author uses this kind of character or plot.
Now clearly, this isn’t a fantasy that’s going to work for everyone, but from the people I’ve spoken to about My Reckless Surrender, it is a fantasy that has worked across a broad spectrum.
Here’s where I’m going to start extrapolating wildly, with no real empirical evidence. I’m also not going to come up with any answers to the questions I’m going to ask, but I’m hoping that someone else might weigh in. I’m fascinated by this kind of discussion, so I’m looking forward to what other people will have to say.
I’m also going to caveat this with the fact that I’m dealing mostly with mainstream, heterosexual romance novels written by women.
So, presumably, a self-aware, pride-sacrificing hero strikes a positive chord in many romance readers, and therefore many women.
Romance authors need to tap into that sort of communal fantasy to create beloved characters and stories, and, let’s face it, to continue to be able to work as writers.
But what — or who — are they really writing?
In my undergrad comp lit degree, we talked a lot about post-colonial theory. There’s a theorist named Edward Said who coined the term ‘orientalism’. Orientalism at its most basic level is when a oppressor (in post-colonial terms, the colonist) writes the oppressed (in post-colonial terms, the colonised). Essentially, a colonist (in post-colonial studies, this is generally a white European) sits down and portrays through writing the colonised (generally a native — in post-colonial studies, these include Indians, Native Americans, Indigenous Australians, Africans, and other people who lived on ‘discovered’ land) as if from a position of authority. This literature is then used by the colonist culture as a way of informing and educating themselves about the native (and his/her culture) but also as a way of defining the native. This is especially damaging where the native has no recourse to write him/herself, so all the information comes from the colonist/oppressor.
A similar thing comes out in feminist theory about literature pre-20th century — you know, the time when all books by women started out with a page whereon the author apologises profusely for having the temerity to put pen to paper? Yeah. Those times. When all women in fiction appeared through the eyes of the male author, and where the virgin/whore dichotomy came out.
With me so far?
Okay, so here’s where I get interested: romance novels are written mostly by women, mostly for women. That’s not really in dispute. And since about the 1990s, it’s been customary — actually, it’s been darned near necessary — for the authors (remember — mainly women) to write in male point-of-view for at least some of the time. When it comes gay romance, some write only in male point-of-view.
Now remember, I didn’t say I had any answers, but here’s my question: is this problematic?
One of the (many, many) criticisms I’ve heard leveled at romance novels is that they promote unrealistic expectations in women. Now, I think this is bunk. Romance readers are just as capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality as any other reader, and this criticism has always smacked of a kind of misogyny (oooh poor little girl, you might get confused if you read that!!). But the truth is, we are reading a fantasy, and more to the point, we’re reading a fantasy guy created by a woman.
The main argument for me distinguishing this from reverse-orientalism is the fact that men have ample opportunity to write themselves, even if most choose not to do so in romance fiction.
But still. It’s something that women and post-colonial cultures have railed against for centuries, that we romance readers not only accept, we expect it.
Is it dangerous? Is it reverse-orientalism? Is it a problem?
I don’t know. What do you think?
Kate Cuthbert is a reader, writer, reviewer, twitter-er, blogger, and starter of readers’ groups, all devoted (mainly) to romance novels. You can read her Romance Buzz newsletters, catch her romance round up and reviews, check out her oft-neglected website, email her, or follow her @katydidinoz.