"Winsome or Loathsome" column. This new feature will "look at well-known heroines and asked the pointed question—Winsome or Loathsome?" Each column will open with an AAR reviewer giving a brief description of the heroine in question, and the book in which she appears, then the reasons why she has not been "universally loved" by romance readers. Several AAR reviewers will then weigh in with their own judgments; AAR readers will be invited to discuss and debate in response to each post.
Why do romance readers so often judge the likability of romance characters? It's a tendency that's always interested me, because it's not one that literary critics are not trained, or encouraged, to pursue. Maria Konnikova's 2013 Atlantic article, "Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters," shows how the entire question of wanting your literary characters to behave well is rather ridiculous to the literary cognocenti:
Should we be looking to fiction for friendship material to begin with? Imagine for a moment that someone wrote an impassioned critique of Crime and Punishment on the basis of Raskolnikov's unworthiness, or denounced Macbeth because Lady Macbeth would likely turn out to be one of those frenemies who invites you for a sleepover and takes the opportunity to poison you and ruin your reputation on the chance you survive, or railed at The Inferno because, out of all its major players, hardly a one would pass muster as friendship material. You'd dismiss any of these arguments from the get-go. Judge literature on the merits of its characters-as-my-best-friend material and you lop off the vast majority of the literary canon—and much of modern fiction along with it.... Such a reading misses the point entirely.
But for readers of romance, unlike readers of literary fiction, judging its characters has always seemed part and parcel of the reading process. Why?
AAR already has a successful column, "Dreamboat or Douchebag," devoted to a similar evaluation of male romance novel protagonists, so clearly this is not simply a gendered thing, this judging. Although I'm guessing there have been, in the original column, and will be in the new one, interesting gendered aspects to reviewers' and readers' conclusions. What actions do readers find reprehensible in a heroine? In a hero? Are they similar, or quite different?
I'll be interested to read future AAR columns, to analyze the gender politics behind the judgments readers make. But today, though, I'm more interested in the larger issue of judging itself. Why do romance readers feel (I'm not sure of the right word to use here)—compelled to? entitled to? deep pleasure in?—making moral, ethical judgments of the characters in our romances?
Is it because romance readers believe/wish/desire on some level that the characters in the books they read be their friends? And being friends with a protagonist who does something bad makes the reader feel bad/guilty by association?
Is it because their main way of responding to romance protagonists is by identifying with them, and if a character behaves in an unacceptable way, it's like throwing a monkey wrench into the identification process?
Is it because romance, unlike most other genres, focuses so much on emotions, especially on the impact one character's actions can have on another character's feelings? Bad behavior leads to hurt feelings—by condemning a hero or heroine's actions, are readers trying to protect one another from feeling hurt?
Is it because romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be larger, and thus less fallible, than people in real life? So if they aren't, we feel the need to point out their unsuitableness for the role of hero or heroine?
Is it because romance readers are so-often judged (negatively, in large part) for their reading, so they extend this judgmental stance to what they themselves are reading?
I'm also wondering about the line between judging and being judgmental. Is there a meaningful difference? Between making an ethical judgment and conservatively policing the behavior of others?
When you read romances, do you find yourself judging their characters? Why or why not? And to what end?