Jack The Ripper, Skirt Flipper

October 13, 2013 Opinion 24

A knife lays on the upper flat surface of a wooden cross grave marker.While we’re busy not shaming each other’s kinks I’d like to talk about each other’s triggers. The rape fantasy has largely left mainstream genre romance but a new trope has risen to take it’s place, that of the abusive hero. in Karen Robards’ new series the heroine is fascinated by a man she has every reason to believe is a serial killer. At one point she thinks to herself that it really doesn’t matter what he has done because she knows in her heart he wouldn’t hurt HER, not physically at least. (That’s pretty much a quote but I’m too lazy to dig it out just now.) Robards further removes her heroine from danger by asserting that his paranormal status  renders him harmless. This is a curious conceit in a book that allows various points of contact between the dead and living worlds. His penis can cross over but not his stabbing hand? Okay.

In Linda Howard’s Death Angel the hero actually does kill the heroine. Drea, the heroine, forgives him because (as in the above book) he’s just too sexy to forget. Howard ups her game by asserting that being murdered has made Drea a better person. Pages have been typed about the domestic violence patterns in the Twilight series and The Books We Never Name. Full scale fandom wars have broken out over the Kristen Ashley books. Being in an abusive relationship is bad. Wanting to be the jailhouse bride of a serial killer is bad. Reading about both of these things is good. Got it.

I’m not arguing that fiction is life or that women cannot tell the difference between the two. I am sad for myself that a lot of authors I used to love are veering toward the darkest of the dark side and leaving my life. From vampires to hit men to serial killers to abuser bingo cards, the men in many top books frighten me. I can’t root for the heroine. She’s going to die. Maybe not by the end of the book, maybe not quickly, maybe not even physically but she’s handing her life over for the promise of great sex.

I’ve talked before about lacking the privilege required to buy into these stories. The heroine’s blithe assurance of personal safety, no matter what violence the hero perpetuates outside the home, is one I can never share. You can have Dexter, Hannibal, The Sopranos and all the rest. Leave me out of that game. I love romance as a genre because it shows how two people can make each other better through a strong partnership. The dangerous mate fantasy is a lie. It’s completely different from Hood Made Good or Soldier Comes Home because it is not circumstances that make the hero commit vile acts, it is his personal preferences. These are things he wanted to do, not things he has had to do. He cannot leave behind a life he chose for pleasure.

When I talk about what doesn’t work for me in fiction I am not shaming your kink. I am expressing my distress. If we prioritize the fetish above the fear we do both groups a disservice. Recognize that the assurance that the heroine (or the reader) is free from harm is a faith based choice not every reader can (or will) make. Your boring boy next door is another’s outlandish fantasy piece. Your gangster who claims to have a heart of gold might be their terrifying reality.

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Meoskop

Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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24 Responses to “Jack The Ripper, Skirt Flipper”

  1. Selma

    I really like what you said here: “The heroine’s blithe assurance of personal safety, no matter what violence the hero perpetuates outside the home, is one I can never share.”

    That’s a perspective I share. Maybe people who are able to love heroes like this are more able to trust the author and suspend disbelief than I am, but if I see a hero act threatening, that’s what I believe, not the promise of the destined main male character.

  2. Meoskop

    @Selma: Absolutely. Words are easy, actions are clues. I remember in the early 90’s Lass Small took an abusive ex from one book and repurposed him as a hero. There was backlash. I don’t think there would be today.

  3. Liz Mc2

    This post (which I really appreciate) reminds me of a comment Las made on a discussion of Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold: that she could not read past the abuse dynamics or couldn’t see the relationship in any other way. I think in the insistence that books can be read multiple ways and we should not reader/kink-shame (both of which I believe) the message can end up being “books can be read any way but a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.” People who can’t or don’t want to read this behavior symbolically or trust that the heroine will be OK get silenced (and I know some people who love books with these issues have often felt that they are the ones who get silenced or attacked).

    Over at Dear Author there is a discussion going on about R. Lee Smith’s latest book, and someone linked this blog post of hers:

    http://rleesmith.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/hot-and-deadly-hop-begins/

    Two things struck me about this: 1. there is a lot of “we” in here, and I see this a lot in Romanceland (why do “we” love bad boys? “we” do find alpha males hot). Where does that leave the reader who doesn’t find herself in that “we”? She can’t feel welcome to this discussion. and 2. Smith asserts the hotness of the deadly guy and points out that it’s all over the place in our culture (and it is) but she doesn’t *interrogate* it at all. She just asserts that “deep in our brains violence = passion = sex.” Oh really? I’m pretty wary of chalking this up to biology rather than culture, which this seems to do. Why accept this equation? (Readers seem to differ on whether she interrogates it in her books, which I haven’t read.)

  4. meoskop

    @Liz Mc2: Well that link gave me the heebie jeebies. I feel some kind of way that saying “I don’t think men who kill women are sexy” needs massive disclaimer. Say “I like the way she uses rape to build her world” not “Rape is really hot!” and don’t get bent when I say “The rape is very upsetting to me and I cannot support this story.”

    Sorry, that link set me off. When she says we want to write / read smacking men in the face I recoil. Domestic violence isn’t sexy to me, although it may be to others. To define it as something “we” all want is wrong. There are many things that those who like these elements would not want as a genre standard, or werewolves wouldn’t change back to human for mating.

    I saw this cover at the library – http://mayabanks.com/books/cherished/. I see a young, underweight, depersonalized female who is either asleep or deceased. It’s not hot to me. It’s important to me to refuse to define violent hero/ines as the genre norm. It makes me sad to see readers feel the flaw is on them for not liking abusive characters.

  5. Sunita

    I really appreciate the way you present this issue, Meoskop. I’ve read a fair number of alphaholes in old HPs, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of those books, but I’m not sure I could read them in the same way today, and I have little to no interest in the bad boy/alphaholes of today. They’re not romantic to me, and they aren’t why I read romance.

    Like you, I believe that readers can tell reality from fantasy, and I’ve read enough scholarly studies that talk about women’s and men’s domination and rape fantasies to know that there are people who enjoy these books for reasons that make total sense for them. But sometimes I feel as if the pendulum has swung 180 degrees from the time when Robin and Janine were pilloried on the AAR boards for endorsing To Have and To Hold, to where it’s difficult to say “I don’t want to read or talk about these types of characters” without being seen as judgmental or worse.

    What troubled me (most) about the blog post Liz just linked to is the assertion that more violence = more passion = hot sex. Not everyone wants violence in their real or fantasized passion, not by a long shot. Maybe the “we” she’s talking about are her readers and her, but there is wide variety in people’s propensity for, and legitimation of, violence in consensual adult settings, let alone in society more generally. It’s inaccurate and in appropriate to write as if it’s a general trait.

  6. Ridley

    Genre readers aren’t idiots, and most of us can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but I think a lot of the friction in these discussions comes from an inability or unwillingness to see that something can be a fantasy and a problem at the same time.

    If you say “This hero fits the classic abuser achetype,” inevitably some readers hear “Anyone who liked this hero doesn’t know what’s good for her.” It’s classic derailing, really, where someone takes a discussion about some problem and makes it about themselves and their feelings. Discussing the abuse dynamics prevalent in the books they liked makes them uncomfortable, for whatever reason, and the next step is claims of “reader shaming” and “censorship.” It’s frustrating.

    I know why people like these heroes, and I don’t begrudge anyone their fantasy material, but people who dislike these heroes need to be able to speak their dislike without getting shouted down.

  7. meoskop

    @Sunita: Pretty much everything you & Ridley say here, x2. It’s interesting that you brought up To Have & To Hold. That’s a book I quite liked, and it is absolutely an indication of industry shift. (I’m perilously close to talking about the merging of romance and romantic erotica now.)

    I always want readers able to say “This made me feel bad / good” as individuals. But things have their lanes, I don’t want Flowers In The Attic mowing down the tea sippers at Almacks. (Now that I’ve said that I can think of three authors who could make it work. Trouble with rules.)

  8. Beks

    thanks for writing this post, M. i wanted to tackle this, but didn’t really know where to start because honestly i felt like i’d be screaming into an empty room. i think of Bared to You be Sylvia Day, that featured the most recent alpha-hole ive read in Gideon Cross. i was witness to a bunch of twenty-something girls fawning over this character before i read the book. after, i wasn’t disappointed that they enjoyed the book. i was afraid for them. not that its my place, but you get what i mean. readers can separate fantasy from reality, but i do know people who are drawn to this sort of behavior because they’ve been told its okay. he tries to control you therefore he loves you sort of thing.

    Gideon completely scared me as a character. completely. i loved Day’s writing style, but couldn’t go on with the series because i couldn’t stomach him which apparently was the right move because i heard his behavior becomes even more bonkers as the stories go along. still, readers freaking love this guy. anyway, yeah that’s not the kind of man i want to read about in a romance. this isnt the kind of man i want any heroine to be with. i can handle moody and even a little jerky, but controlling and abusive? nah.

  9. Fiona McGier

    I’m not even a fan of alpha heroes, let alone abusive ones. I don’t want to read about BDSM, or even hair-pulling. I want the hero to be respectful of the heroine, and I want them to clash because they’re unique personalities, not because he feels he needs to prove his manhood by dominating her every thought.

    I don’t want to shame readers who enjoy this, but the danger is not only that females will internalize this as a good way for reality to be, but that males will read/hear about the books and think this is the way females want them to act. This is harmful to everyone. We’re not all simpering virgins who want to be dominated, nor are all men domineering alphas who want a meek servile woman. There really is no universal “we”.

  10. Jill Sorenson

    In the Howard book, the heroine gets in a car accident, IIRC. But the hero is an assassin on a mission to kill her. Anne Stuart has written heroes like this also. “Kiss her or kill her” is what I call it–and I’ve enjoyed it. I think the key for me is that the hero doesn’t actually hurt the heroine (unless she wants him to). I don’t like abusive, controlling, man knows best behavior.

    Erin Satie wrote an interesting post about fantasy vs. reality, saying that some readers want to read about the world they live in, others a world they wish they lived in. Some readers want a hero they would actually date/love in real life. Others not so much. I hear a lot of readers say “I’d never date a guy like this, but omg this book! So hot!”

    I prefer to read (and try to write) heroes who respect women. Men I would actually like in real life.

    The link Liz shared. Where do I start. The idea that vampires weren’t sexualized before the 90s is a laugh. The movie mentioned is based on a classic book, hello. I think it’s a common, age-old fantasy for women to imagine being ravaged by a monster. Fine and great. But it’s not a romance unless that monster has human qualities, a heart, and some sort of transformation from violent beast to decent person.

  11. Sunita

    I’ve been mulling the post and comments over some more, and I’m starting to think that the abusive hero trope has a parallel in the rape/forced-seduction debate. Going back to THATH, the division was between those who called it rape and those who called it forced seduction, the latter being a term to describe the rape-by-the-hero trope in romance. It’s not treated the same way as IRL rape by those readers, and given that there are quite a few readers who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted who read forced-seduction books, there’s clearly some other type of processing going on than the “this is rape” processing some of us do of the trope.

    I think that the abusive hero might be analogous in that the reader who enjoys abusive heroes isn’t interested in them IRL but finds pleasure in reading about them between the pages of a romance novel, which by definition offers an HEA. Maybe there’s a similar kind of domination fantasy operating, or maybe it’s because the reader can exert control over the text situation; in either case, the reader is providing consent where the heroine isn’t.

    If these kinds of reader interactions are going on, the readers are probably not going to be receptive to being told they’re reading (and endorsing) classic IRL abuse scenarios, because they’re not processing them that way.

    I’ve been thinking about Smith blog post some more, too, and I think that she’s conflating domination and violence. Domination fantasies may include violence, although they don’t have to, but the kind of violence that appears to be prevalent in her books goes beyond those, both in degree and kind. I’m sure there is a readership for those, and clearly there are readers who will put up with lots of violence for the other things in her books. But asserting that intensity of passion *necessarily* involves violence is just wrong. Then again, I’m generally suspicious of people who talk about the “unevolved brain.”

  12. Sunita

    @Sunita: Oops, the phrase in quotes should be “unevolved part of our brains.” Not the whole brain.

    Either way, I’m still suspicious.

  13. Meoskop

    Addressing Sunita & Jill –

    Jill – i haven’t read it in some time but the hero causes the accident and I believe checks to make sure she’s dead. His intent, having had dub-con sex, is to kill her. I’m not sure there’s an out for him in the crash.

    Sunita – it bothers me deeply that if the heroine is the victim matters to reader interpretation of the work. I am all for loving problematic reads, but for loving them with awareness. I was discussing on Twitter that Plantation -> Savage -> Paranormal -> Alien reads to me like an unbroken chain. We run from examining the problems in these reads by declaring them Over.

    Reading from a white perspective I find the concept that it matters if the acts are committed on the heroine or not to be an extension of privilege. No matter what violence is perpetuated on lesser characters, it’s only wrong and outrageous if it happens to the heroine. Even asking “Yes, but is it the heroine he rapes?” should set off giant warning sirens! Last night I was wondering how I came to join the DA community because (having been linked) I read the comments about the Gann book and wanted to set them on fire. I looked at a 2010 review where a
    Harlequin was being F graded for having rape in the storyline. Closure, suddenly I had it.

    I prefer to identify the problematic aspect of problematic loves. I don’t want to normalize these things or hand wave them. If the book fails to make a case for it’s abusive hero, it’s fetishized abuse. This is hard to articulate, but I’m never going to call John Preston’s Mr. Benson a romance, despite it being about a sexual love relationship. I don’t consider clearly discussing it to be shaming it’s readers.

  14. Las

    @Beks: “but i do know people who are drawn to this sort of behavior because they’ve been told its okay. he tries to control you therefore he loves you sort of thing. ”

    This reminds me a lot of a post I read on tumblr a few weeks ago, a response to a list of abusive behaviors to look out for in a partner. She said that the list wasn’t helpful for people who grew up up in abusive families, because to them, everything on that list was a sign of a loving relationship. He puts you down all the time? That’s because he’s the only one who loves you enough to be honest. Things like that. I’m getting that vibe from the link Liz posted.

    While I can’t think of any recent books, the “alpha”/abusive hero is one I’ve enjoyed many times. That’s always largely depended on the heroine’s reactions to the hero’s behaviors, but it’s also because of why I enjoy romance generally–relationships can so often be minefields, and the guaranteed HEA Romance offers can be a balm, especially when I was younger and had more issues with men. If a reader is going into a book with the belief that all men are horrible, reading about an asshole who truly loves the heroine is going to be appealing, because the hero seems almost realistic. Romance allows readers to give men the benefit of the doubt risk free. That’s why I couldn’t like THATH–having the hero’s POV made it impossible for me to give him the benefit of the doubt, since I knew exactly what he was thinking when he was hurting the heroine.

  15. Beks

    @Las I think that makes a lot of sense. Make Me by Charlotte Stein had a hero that really freaked me out, but the whole book was from the heroine’s POV and she was totally turned on by what he was doing and saying so I had to trust her in a way even though it made me wildly uncomfortable. Luckily, this guy didn’t turn out to be an actual rapist or murderer so it was easier to deal with their HEA.

  16. Jill Sorenson

    @Meoskop: You could be right about his intent. I didn’t finish the book and can’t remember.

    There’s a Catherine Coulter book I really love (or used to love) with a rape scene, a medieval called Rosehaven. Perhaps because of my love for the book, I have trouble thinking of that scene as rape. Even though it clearly was, looking back. The heroine was afraid to consummate the marriage and fought the hero the whole time.

    So, yeah. I’ve enjoyed some questionable things. I can understand how one rapey book gets an A while another gets an F, and how one reader can interpret a scene as rape while another reads something else.

  17. meoskop

    @Jill Sorenson: And there’s nothing wrong with liking questionable things. We like what we like. Coulter is super extra rapey yet some of her books have worked for me as romances. But not in a couple decades, to be honest.

  18. Shannon C.

    This is such a great post, and the comments have given me a lot to think about. Mostly with regard to what I expect out of different books.

    For myself, I’m interested in reading the Smith book, but not as a romance. As grimdark sci-fi, it sounds like fun, but as a romance, no. I don’t even really like a lot of the old-school alpha types a lot of people do. But there’s a certain “This is such a train wreck… it can’t be that bad, can it?” curiosity on my part.

    Though that said, I’ve been wondering if I’d even have given the books a second look if I’d read about them on, say, tor.com. I feel like the answer is no, I would have run screaming from the problematic content. But since I found them on a romance blog, am I giving them a pass I otherwise might not because there’s some kind of HEA? I haven’t figured that out for myself yet.

  19. Liz Mc2

    @Shannon C.: The whole issue of “giving it a pass for the HEA” and/or “but does he do X to the heroine?” part of this is something I keep pondering. I don’t mean to criticize readers who make these distinctions about what they will/won’t read or do/don’t like, though I do find it troubling. It’s not such a big deal if he’s a rapist as long as he doesn’t rape her? As I said to Meoskop on Twitter, I’m not into the “The Misogynist Who Loved (Only) Me” thing.

    But I think Sunita is absolutely right that this is about readers processing things in different ways or reading through different lenses, and about readers consenting. I think we can see reader consent when people say “X book is problematic but so compelling; the voice/story-telling/world-building is great.” The strengths are part of what gain a reader’s consent.

    I’m also interested in readings that privilege a symbolic/fantasy interpretation over a literal one, because I find it antithetical to the way many people read most of the time. I am wrestling with this question of literal vs. symbolic as my students read and write about fairy tales. Often I have to point out the coded sexual elements in Little Red Riding Hood, but/and point out the symbolic ways of reading what is really rape in some versions of Sleeping Beauty (the ones where she’s wakened not by a kiss but by giving birth to the prince’s twins).

    So what allows or teaches or invites many readers to read . . . not “past” I don’t think, or not necessarily, but “through” or “in a different way” . . . hero behaviors that on a literal level read as abuse?

    This is a long, rambly way of saying I have no answers but I’m loving the discussion this post is generating.

  20. Janine

    I’m late to this discussion but wanted to say how much I enjoyed Meoskop’s post and the conversation here. I love the way Meoskop articulated her views and the conversation has touched on so many important issues. I apologize for the length of my post, but you guys gave me so much food for thought. To contribute my two dollars:

    I found Sunita’s comment that the pendulum has swung really interesting, because I hadn’t noticed it so much on a conscious level, but as soon as I read it and gave it a little thought I could see what she meant.

    The uber-alpha/sometimes abusive hero is so popular right now, and often if there’s no element of moral reparation in these books, or if there is, it’s muted. And there is such a fandom for some of these books that when one tries to raise such concerns, one can encounter a tide of resistance. That happened to me when I reviewed Nalini Singh’s Heart of Obsidian.

    On the other hand, I have to admit that there are times when I feel ashamed to have enjoyed a book that contains rape or abuse. This doesn’t mean I’ve been shamed by others in a deliberate fashion, just that I experience a feeling of shame.

    For example, this happened to me in the recent discussion of To Have and to Hold at Liz’s blog. I felt I was the only reader there who bought into the HEA at the end of the book and that created a fear of being cut off from the rest of the participants in me.

    I’ve been very slowly reading Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me, in which she shares the results of her psychological study of shame among women. After surveying women from a variety of backgrounds on their definition of shame (as opposed to other emotions like guilt, embarrassment and humiliation) she arrived at this definition: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She also states that shame is about the fear of disconnection.

    So really, I think all that’s necessary for someone to experience shame, especially around sensitive topics like abusive heroes, is to be alone in holding an opinion, especially one that might be viewed as unaccepted by large segments of society, or even just to feel alone in holding that opinion. There doesn’t need to be any conscious intention to shame that person.

    This is a thorny issue for any community.

    With regard to whether women for whom fictional rape scenes tap into a fantasy process it differently, I think we do. I am on the record as being one of those women, though for me this isn’t the case with all rape scenes. Some simply horrify me.

    With other books such scenes can have an erotic effect on me. I don’t know why — it goes back to my preteen years– but I also think we have no control over our fantasies and we don’t choose what’s erotic to us. That can exist in our psychological makeup without our approval of it. I have loved ones who have been sexually assaulted IRL and since that didn’t change my fantasies, likely nothing will.

    But even with the books where it turns me on, most often I end up feeling queasy after finishing the book. In more rare cases, I end up loving the book.

    So it’s very complicated, but yes, there have certainly been books I’ve read where I was totally on board for the hero to rape the heroine. I don’t agree though that when that’s the case it’s the reader must not see it as a rape. It’s hard to describe, but for me, I’m perfectly aware, intellectually, that it is rape.

    But in romance narratives, a rape scene can function both to create a conflict between the main characters and also, a kind of twisted bond between them. If they didn’t have a history together before, they will after that. If they didn’t give each other as much thought before the rape happened, they will be on each other’s minds now.

    So in that moment, I want to see how the conflict will play out and how the author will manage to change the dynamic, and I’m on board in big part for that reason.

    Onto another topic — the abusive and even killing heroes. A couple years back, Jane did a blog post on DA about exaggeration in romance, and how yesterday’s millionaires were turning into today’s billionaires, and tomorrow heroes might be trillionaires.

    I think some degree of exaggeration is necessary in any kind of fiction, to create a dramatic situation. That’s why we don’t have many scenes of characters flossing or tying their shoes. It’s boring. Fiction attempts to leave out the boring parts.

    But with that said, I sometimes feel the trend toward exaggeration has gotten so strong in the romance genre that I fear it will leave me behind. Something needs to ground a fictional work in reality.

    And just as the millionaires have turned into billionaires, so have the rapist heroes turned into professional killer heroes (whether they are sanctioned killers like spies and special forces guys, or assassins for hire like Simon from Howard’s Death Angel).

    While I often enjoy reading about them, I also worry about where all this is going, because at some point it’s going to become impossible to exaggerate further without entering the realm of the absurd.

    I enjoyed Nalini Singh’s Kiss of Snow a great deal, but the hero seriously considered erasing his own race from existence — out of love for the heroine. I found the story both romantic and problematic, because while the word genocide wasn’t used, that’s what eliminating an entire race of people is. As the granddaughter of people who barely survived an actual genocide, that wasn’t something I could just ignore or make excuses for, but clearly from the discussion thread at DA, many readers didn’t have the same trouble.

    @Meoskop Re. DA. Although the types of books being reviewed there have changed a great deal (as the genre trends have changed), I don’t think the reviewing philosophy has changed much if at all.

    Back in 2010, the same year when a book was condemned for containing rape, Sarah F. had a B+ review of Force of Law by Jez Morrow at DA, which she said had “one of the best forced seduction scenes I’ve ever read.”

    We’ve always had disagreements and contradictory opinions. We’ve always enjoyed problematic books, just as we’ve enjoyed discussing what makes some books problematic. Jane acknowledged in the discussion of her review of The Last Hour of Gann that the book is problematic, and encouraged readers to share their concerns.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that my opinion on this differs from yours because of my insider status and my longstanding relationships with several of the DA reviewers (and perhaps I should not have shared it for that reason). I’ve known about Jane’s love for problematic Johanna Lindsey novels for years now, for example. It doesn’t trouble me in the least, because I love a lot of problematic books myself. I agree with you completely that it’s better to acknowledge the problematic nature of such books.

  21. Meoskop

    @Janine – this is a great comment & I thank you for leaving it. I’ve had a number of conversations over the last few days but this acknowledgement that shame is often of internal origin is critical, and your very honest statements about reading shame excellent, thanks for adding them.

    I am not certain how to address the DA bits. I probably misspoke by raising that issue but it was very much on my mind in the last 24 hours. Obviously, the inside view and the outside view often don’t align. And I think I am ok speaking for all of us when I saw we did not start LITM to be anti-DA or pro-DA or anything-DA. We wanted to have exactly the kind of conversation we’re having right now. DA was very much for me in years past and it’s very much not for me now. I haven’t felt an enumeration of why would add to either blog’s enjoyability. I respect many DA bloggers. The genre is what we decide it is. Trends are driven by exposure and discussion. I don’t want the genre DA wants anymore and that’s okay.

    And now, to quote REM, I’ve said too much.

  22. Janine

    @Meoskop — No, your comment was tactful and I appreciate it. Sometimes things are for us and then later they’re not anymore. It happens to everyone, all the time, for a variety of reasons.

  23. Liz Mc2

    I typed out a long comment and lost it. Basically: in pointing to questions like “but does he do X (rape, hit) to the heroine?” I didn’t mean to refer to any particular comment–I see this question fairly often in discussion threads. I had forgotten that Meoskop referred to a particular example.

    My point (though I failed to make it) was mostly about how narratives direct our sympathies. Years ago I went to see THE KILLING FIELDS and a woman behind us said to her friend “If you get upset, pretend it’s a documentary.” My friend and I were all “WTF?” (or would have been, but it was the early 80s). If real people are being killed, it’s not upsetting? (Also, the movie is based on real events). But that woman had a point. Fictional characters can feel real to us that an anonymous stranger in news footage is not. We know them, what they are thinking and feeling. The narrative has led us to care about them.

    It IS harder when something happens to the heroine, because our sympathies are engaged by her in a way they may not be by less central characters. The thrust of the narrative is to make her real to us, an “equivalent center of self.” That is a quote from George Eliot, who was thinking about how novels might teach us empathy long before psychologists started studying it.

    So I think it is natural to draw lines like this in deciding what we are comfortable reading, but there can be a downside too, when our sympthies may be engaged not by a victim, but by the perpetrator, because the narrative tells us he is the “hero” and the one we should care about, it’s his head we are in. A good book can, of course, use this to raise all kinds of questions. A bad one can encourage make us think violence is sexy, or that some people are less worthy of our sympathies (she was a slut anyway), without troubling those assumptions at all. And I think different readers will make different judgments about where any given book falls on that spectrum, for all kinds of reasons.

    Also, great point about shame, Janine.