There’s a romance author in my writing group whose posts crack me up. On Wednesdays—Hump Day, she calls it—she posts a Hunk-off: a pairing of two hunks and, in jest, she asks her followers to make the hard choice between the two. Is it the guy with the tat on his bicep or the full-bodied tats guy that turns them on? Or the city-type versus the country-type? You get the idea. My assumption about this was that the winning votes go to the hunkier of the two. Type, be damned, I thought, the bod gets the votes. The face is a secondary consideration, or is it?
Her own account is that, “it started as a goof because of all the other posts being made on Facebook on the same vein (Man Candy Monday, Wet Wednesday, etc). Aside from just being a fun way to share pictures of good-looking guys (objectifying them, yes, I know, guilty as charged), it also seemed like a good way to get a feel for what women are attracted to in a man, or more specifically an idealized version of men. That would be something I could translate into the crafting of my heroes. You might be surprised to know that the comments people leave are as often about the eyes and the smiles as they are the ripped abs. That has told me one important thing: no matter how sexy or attractive the heroes may be, the true measure of the man for romance readers is always going to be focused on the inside, not the pretty outer wrapping.”
I react to these posts as a thriller reader who prefers to see how the hero survives at the mercy of the plot. Or not. Other romance writers who comment on Hump Day posts, do so from the point of view of their alter-egos as readers of romance. They are not reacting as writers of romance since they are mostly married, grown-up, professional women. Being a realist, I find this parallel interesting, particularly since both my thrillers have a strong romantic element, but use conflict and love between genders as a catalyst in my plotting. (By the way, being a member of the RWA—Romance Writers of America—strengthens my understanding of how relationships fire the plot.)
As in romances, thriller readers struggle vicariously with the hero through the plot. But both men and women read my kind of thriller—a good example would be The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry—whereas The Romance is almost exclusively a women’s genre. In her exemplary essay, The Androgynous Reader (published in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, 1992 University of Pennsylvania Press) Jayne Ann Krentz points out that, “in romance, it is the hero who carries the book”, not the heroine. She flatly states that the man carries the book because the reader, “can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace (adjectives very commonly applied to heroes, including my own), can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability: yes, ma’am, all those old romantic clichés. In short, she can be a man.”
No anti-hero losers in Krentz’s world.
The male stereotype is still relevant in romance as the posts prove, buying in to Krentz’s male-centric thesis about what she calls the male “placeholder” role. Consistent with her belief, Krentz points out that, in her RWA Best Book of the Year (1990) historical romance, The Prince of Midnight, the heroine character is virtually inaccessible for almost half the book. The book also only had the hero alone on the cover.
No clinch covers with over-endowed illustrated females for Krentz.
As someone who doesn’t write a romantic scene without a ticking time bomb counting down, I am liberated by Krentz’s approach to this point of view. Which is why I was surprised by her posts: it’s his face that encourages the viewer (or reader) to explore the hero’s anger, ruthlessness, passion, pride, honor, gentleness and vulnerability. Though, I have to say they mostly look like—forgive me—pussies, which to me, is far more offensive when referring to a man than to a woman. Objectification is insulting, but misplaced objectification is larceny.
I find it impossible to believe that the men in those photographs can fill the shoes of the romance hero; not just because they are so male-model-pretty, but because of the self-conscious vanity of their poses. If, oblivious to the camera, the country-type was carefully wrestling a bull to the ground to tend to a wound, would he not be more heroic? The woman reader is intimately familiar with the transference of alpha-male vulnerability when it comes to risking her own life for the sake of a child. Or a bull. Later in the Dangerous Men volume, Penelope Williamson, in her essay, By Honor Bound. The Heroine as Hero, shows how, in romantic novels, heroines transfer the heroic qualities of the hero to themselves.
Paradoxically, it was David Bowie’s death that brought me to wondering if the same rules worked in reverse. Do male readers of thrillers want to feel the predicament of the heroine; if only during the reading of the book? Bowie grappled with his feelings of alienation during the years of successive failures—believe it or not—in rock groups, then he developed Ziggy Stardust—the archetypal outsider. Glam rock was born—and became wildly successful. The excellent documentary, David Bowie – Sound and Vision (onemediamusic) shows how Bowie’s “otherworldliness” attracted thousands of teenage men who wanted to feel the thrill of the heroine in themselves. Whether it was the paranormal, phantasmagorical aspect, or his androgynous face, a generation bought in to his rebel vulnerability. As did I. Bear in mind that Bowie, despite his proclamations to the contrary, was not gay; he remained heterosexual all his life. It was okay that he acted out while taking us on his ride. I knew that when the song was over, I was still who I was. But the genius in the pages stayed with me. And that is what I want to take away after reading a really good book.
Geoffrey Wells writes about privacy, elephant conservation, cyber trends and music. And of course, updates on his latest thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud.