October 1, 2003 - Issue #168

In order to transfer columns from our old format more efficiently, links to authors have been removed from the text because our new design includes a mini-search module at the bottom of each page. If an author's name appears in this column, chances are we've either reviewed their books, discussed their writing, or interviewed them, so feel free to search for them at AAR using the module.

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Much of this column relates to "bookie behaviors." We started thinking about such behaviors after Blythe Barnhill mentioned in a recent Pandora's Box that when she reads anthologies, she doesn't allow herself to skip any of the stories. Not only that, she requires herself to read them all in book order. And, both she and Linda Hurst are guilty (as am I) of buying the same book more than once. These are two behaviors I doubt exist outside the "bookie" world, and we want to ask about other bookie behaviors, after which Anne will wrap things up with a discussion on the Beta hero.

Bookie Behaviors (Laurie Likes Books)

It's not just that bookies read more than non-bookies, it's that we tend to look at the world in a different way. It's true that not all bookies have tbr piles (or large ones), but a non-bookie probably doesn't read the back of a can of air freshener when occupied in the bathroom while a bookie is likely not only to do so, but to also read the back of a cereal box at the breakfast table if a book isn't handy. Bookies don't have to worry about how to fill those built-in bookcases in their dens and living rooms, and if a bookie hasn't been to a library or bookstore for a couple of weeks, we're apt to be antsy about it.

We've devised a series of questions to find out which bookie behaviors you subscribe to; you may not subscribe to all, but chances are that some of these will sound familiar to you.

  • When you read an anthology, are you impelled by some force within to read the anthology in order and/or to read the entire anthology?

  • Before buying a book, do you check to make sure there are no flaws or nicks on the cover or spine? Have you ever gone through several copies of a book on a rack looking for the one in the most pristine condition? Have you ever bought a second copy of a book you loved because the first had been loved nearly as well as the Velveteen Rabbit? Do you ever dog-ear pages or crack the spines of paperbacks or are do you strive to (and are you proud of) keeping your books "good as new?" Conversely, when shopping at the UBS, do you ever pick the cover with the worn spine instead of the one in better condition because you know it will be easier to read?

  • Do you have favorite places to read? Do you have one chair or spot on the couch where you feel most comfortable reading? Do you tend to read in different places depending on the type of book you're reading? Do you keep a book by your computer for when load times are slow, or in your purse for stoplights or waiting for the bus or train?

  • Did you set a goal for the number of books you wanted to read this year? Are you on target or not, and if not, what are you telling yourself about it?

  • Do people marvel at the number of books in your house or apartment? What do they say to you, and how do you respond?

  • How do you store your books, do you keep any after you've read them, and if so, where do you keep them? For instance, do you separate books tbr from books you're keeping? Do you keep books in alphabetical order, subject or sub-genre, on shelves or under-bed boxes, etc?

  • Do you maintain written or computer lists of your books? Have you ever bought a book more than once by accident? What's your lending policy?

  • How many books do you read at any one time? And what do you do with a book after you've finished reading it?

  • Do you sneak a peek at the end? If so, for all types of books or only certain types - ie, romances yes, mysteries no.

  • Have you ever bought a book based on its cover? Have you ever avoided a book because of its cover, or for a reason others might consider trivial, such as the hero has red hair?

  • Are there ever times when you choose a book to read, then put it back, choose another, put it back, and then complain about having nothing to read? Is this when you're likely to re-read a favorite or comfort read? If not, when is that likely to occur? Or are you someone who never re-reads a book?
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More About Bookie Behavior (Laurie Likes Books and Anne Marble)

LLB: Anne, I thought it might help if we talked about our own bookie behavior. I'll start with this: when the networks and cable news channels starting scrolling news items along the bottom of the screen a couple of years ago, it totally messed me up; how can I not read something that's presented to me? It's gotten to the point that I have to close my eyes when watching news unless I'm committed to reading everything they scroll - even when they get into stuff like baseball scores and the weather in Pittsburgh.

Anne: I'm the same with billboards, although I'm better now. When I first learned to read, and read well, I remember being overwhelmed at first by all the words around me that I could now understand. Car trips with the family meant reading billboards - literally. I couldn't help it. I understood most of the words now, and I would look at each and every one. And there were a lot of the !@#$ things. It took a Herculean effort, but I was able to stop myself from having to read every word. Now it's second nature - glance at something, figure out what it means. But when I was first learning to read, it was driving me nuts.

LLB: Let's take the questions we posed and answer some. When reading an anthology, do you have to read the stories in order? Do you have to read the entire book? I can't answer this specifically because I've not read all that many anthologies. What I can respond to is this: I almost always finish a book I've started, even if I hate it. I don't know why, and there are times when I'll resort to skimming or reading backwards, in chunks, to where I gave up, but it's almost impossible for me not to finish a book I've begun.

Anne: Is it really considered weird to read an anthology in order, or all the way through regardless of who's written the stories or how good they are? I usually do the same as Blythe but make an exception for those massive SF/Fantasy anthologies that come out in giant trade paperbacks. The last time I read one of those, I only looked for the stories I wanted to read right away. But then, those things are the size of phone books.

My turn first on this next one, regarding the appearance of books before I buy them. I do check them to make sure there are no nicks or flaws on the covers, and have been known to go through several until I find what I think is just the "right one." Unfortunately, sometimes books that are pristine on the outside aren't in perfect shape - what's most annoying is when the pages aren't cut properly so that they either stick together at top or bottom or so the text isn't centered on the page right and it's cut off at top or bottom. What about you?

LLB: I'm afraid I'm a nut where book condition is concerned. When I went to pick up my daughter's textbooks for the year I made them exchange her English text for a "better" one. And when I noticed that one of our cats liked to nibble on books and had sunk her teeth marks into a couple of covers, I had to restrain myself from taking drastic action.

I'm not sure why I'm such a nut with reading material, but this habit started in college and got worse in graduate school, and not only with reading, but with writing material. By the time I started grad school I was not only using graph paper to take notes (so much easier to indent "properly" and "uniformly," even if on some pages I was only using two inches along the right margin), but also took Liquid Paper to class, prompting one professor to ask why I just didn't use a pencil.

Okay, here's the next one: "Have you ever bought a second copy of a book you loved because the first had been loved nearly as well as The Velveteen Rabbit?" The answer for me is clearly "no," but I have, upon occasion, bought a second, used copy of a book I love and use that for re-reading so that I can maintain the pristine condition of the original. Since my daughter and I have been reading many Young Adult books, I've had to make certain adjustments as she's a total mess when it comes to reading. Her books eventually fall apart, which is why we have two copies of the Harry Potter and Georgia Nicholson series.

Anne: I actually have several copies of Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Mr. Quinn. My excuse is that each copy had different cover art, and I wanted to collect them. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

I have a sense I know what your answer will be on this one, but do you ever dog-ear pages or crack the spines of paperbacks or are do you strive to (and are you proud of) keeping your books "good as new?"

Some of my books get dog-eared, some earn a bookmark. Preferably either a bookmark from that nice used bookstore in Glenwood (they make multicolored ones) or one of those cool ones with a yarn thingie.

Usually, I keep bookmarks for hardbacks or special books. But sometimes, and I know people are going to hate me for this, a dog-ear is a sign of love. If I know I'm going to be keeping this book, and it's not a collectible copy, I'll dog-ear it. In rare cases, if I'm lingering through a book that I know I'll be keeping, I might dog-ear every other page I read just to give it that nice well-read look. The last time I did this was a summer ago, for Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.

LLB: I'm like the cobbler whose children go without shoes. I have a box in my study with thousands of bookmarks and yet never think to use them, so I'm forever ripping up small pieces of paper and shoving them into the three or four books I keep going at once. No dog-ears for me, or leaving books open, face-down, on a table. As for cracked spines, they're an abomination, I tell you!

How many books do you keep going at once? And what do you do with a book after you've finished reading it?

Anne: I can't keep track of how many I have going at once. I think if I calculated that number, I would qualify for entrance into MIT. Most books are traded in once I finish them. With many books, once I finish them, I like skimming them gently into a trade pile.

But those I keep I store on bookshelves (hurray for Scan!) and plastic containers (hurray for Sterlite and Rubbermaid!), although some books end up living in the plastic or paper bags in which they came. I try to separate most of them by genre, although that's harder with the ones stored in plastic containers. And the ones still in bags are stored by shopping trip. And you?

LLB: A couple of times a year I pay my daughter to help me "shelve" my books. My study is filled with bookshelves for the unreads and those covered under-the-bed plastic boxes for those I'm keeping. Unfortunately, I often pull out three or four books at a time before picking one to read, and the remainder don't get reshelved for months, which means I have piles of books in the den, the living room, and the bedroom.

I do a better job at cataloguing the books I've read than in keeping them in order, though. My original dBASE III database became a Lotus Approach database, which I used until BYRON. Originally I catalogued not only the books I'd read, but the books I'd bought so as not to buy the same one more than once, but now there's simply too many books and too little time. Once in a while I'll duplicate a book, but that's usually when I've done an Amazon order for several books. One of those books won't be released for at least a month but the entire order will stay in my brain. And so I'll end up at the bookstore and forget why a book is in my brain and buy it again. Then the Amazon order arrives - oops.

Anne: I only have a list for Gothic romances, and that's because I was lost when I went to the used bookstores. I based that list on interesting entries in the bibliography Gothic Novels of the 20th Century by Elsa J. Radcliffe. (Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I now have my own copy! Yay!)

The other day, I was cleaning my bookshelves and found three copies of Moonscatter by Jo Clayton. I think I bought the first because I'd heard she was a good author or because I wanted to collect the Ken Kelly cover art; the second after reading Jo Clayton's obituary and realizing she sounded interesting; and the third because I didn't realize I had already bought it twice.

All About Glomming (Laurie Likes Books)

We're not done with our discussion of bookie behavior, but let's move on to one that deserves additional space - glomming.

In doing some summary work for a review of an upcoming release by Leanne Banks, I realized I'd read about fifteen of her books over the years. She's one of my Comfort Read authors, but I was surprised at the final tally. What didn't surprise me was that I'd enjoyed the vast majority of those 15 books - 11 earned B's and four earned C's - while in comparison, of the 11 books I'd read by Elizabeth Bevarly when I glommed her, only three earned grades in the B range. She too had been a comfort read author for me until I hit my first (and only) D with her and realized the vast majority of her grades were in the C range.

Glomming is an interesting bookie phenomenon. At what point does a reader become interested enough in an author to actively seek out her backlist and or collect future reads? Does it happen after one book, two books, one A, one B, etc.? I know that for me, I go on glomming binges whenever I fall in love with a new sub-genre (as when I "discovered" historical romance, then contemporary romance, then category romances, and finally Regencies), or genre (Young Adult fiction), or when I really connect with an author, which might happen after reading as few as one of their books.

Last month we began to upload revised staff biographies, and as part of the process, all of us listed our favorite books in a variety of categories. We also listed our greatest gloms, and as I thought about the last several years, I realized my list had changed as my tastes changed. We ask readers for the author they most glom during our annual reader poll, and I went through my ballots for each year and tried to decide which glom was my biggest. Was it Mary Jo Putney, Amanda Quick/JAK, Elizabeth Lowell, Linda Howard, Julie Garwood, Lisa Kleypas, Jill Barnett, Ruth Langan, Suzanne Barclay, Jill Marie Landis, Nora Roberts, Patricia Oliver, Laurell K Hamilton, or Kasey Michaels' trads? I soon realized my gloms were bigger than individual authors - would the ten old trads I ordered (with more than a little time looking) from an online UBS for Michaels count equally against the twenty new or reissued Roberts' novels I could pick up at any bookstore?

More to the point, why glom at all?

  • Do your bookshelves contain more books by individual authors, many books by fewer authors, or a roughly 50/50 mix?
  • Have most of your gloms fallen into a certain genre/sub-genre or are they authors spread all over the spectrum?
  • Although I no longer GWHR (glomming without having read), I still engage in more glom-reading than I know is good. Haven't we all read a great number of books back to back by a single author out of enthusiasm when it probably would have been better to dole out the books more slowly, over a longer period of time so as to avoid overdosing?
  • On the flip side, do you sometime "save" books by certain authors while at other times can barely wait to tear into their latest?
  • At what point do you decide that an author you once thought was glom-worthy is no longer worth reading?
  • Do you judge a glom by its size or the effort involved?

Favorites, Auto-Buys, Comfort (Laurie Likes Books)

I've been listening to a lot of music from the 80s and early 90s recently. It's been helpful in getting me through some worrisome times; my husband calls it the equivalent of eating mashed potatoes and he's most likely right.

For many of us, reading is the equivalent of comfort food, particularly where certain authors are concerned. One of the reasons I think we glom is because an author's style speaks to us. Perhaps her writing evokes certain memories, or a series she's published/publishing is about a family or group of friends we've come to know and love. Maybe we turn to an author when we need a good laugh - or a good cry. This all comes into play where glomming is concerned - glom-buying, glom-reading, and tbr piles.

In order to give us a starting point, I'm going to list the authors I've most read, others I've read but eventually gave up on, and authors I've most bought (this latter list features authors for whom I've read a reasonable amount of backlist, but have lots more to go). I'd like you to share similar lists with the rest of us on the ATBF Message Board.

Authors Most Read

  • Nora Roberts - 30 books
  • JAK/Amanda Quick - 29 books (no longer buy new releases)
  • Catherine Coulter - 25 books (only Regency-set historicals by now)
  • Anne Rice - 24 books
  • Julie Garwood - 19 books (historicals only)
  • Leanne Banks - 15 books
  • Elizabeth Bevarly - 11 books (no longer read)
  • Elizabeth Lowell - 11 books (series and historicals only)
  • Laurell K Hamilton - 9 books
  • Linda Howard - 9 books (all but one series)
  • Kasey Michaels - 9 books (restricted to trads at this point)
  • Merline Lovelace - 8 books (HH's and other series titles)
  • Patricia Oliver - 8 books
  • Ruth Langan - 6 books
  • Deborah Simmons - 6 books

  • Authors Most Bought

  • Mary Balogh (trads only)
  • Suzanne Barclay
  • Rexanne Becnel
  • Connie Brockway
  • Justine Davis (series only)
  • Christina Dodd
  • Lorraine Heath
  • Stef Ann Holm
  • Lisa Kleypas
  • Betina Krahns
  • Jill Marie Landis
  • Stephanie Laurens
  • Johanna Lindsey
  • Marilyn Pappano
  • Mary Jo Putney
  • Teresa Medeiros
  • Julia Quinn
  • Anne Stuart (series and historicals)
  • Rambles on Beta Heroes (Anne Marble)

    Mention Beta heroes, and many romance readers yawn. Not a few fans think of Betas as "boring" and even "wimps." At the same time, other fans want more Beta heroes. Yet when you start to dig into the question of Beta heroes, even more questions pop up, like snakes popping out of a can. "What is a Beta hero" is the obvious question, but there are many more.

    Okay, so what is a Beta hero? This question is more complicated than it seems. Most descriptions go as follows. "The Beta hero is the kinder, gentler, more sensitive hero." ZZZ. Is it any wonder readers start to fall asleep when they read that definition? But are Beta heroes really like this at all?

    AAR's Jennifer Keirans likes Beta heroes very much, even though she thinks "serious work needs to be done on a definition." Her definition of such a hero is a man who "genuinely likes women and likes the heroine - he doesn't just want to possess her, he respects her and wants to be friends with her." She points to Stephen Kenyon, hero of Mary Jo Putney's One Perfect Rose as an example, adding, "The nice thing about these heroes is that they're more likely to form equal partnerships with the heroines, and that's something I like."

    Have you ever read a romance and later learned with a shock that the hero in that novel was considered to be a Beta hero? That happens to me all the time. I think one of the reasons for this is because we're not really sure what a Beta hero is. Or maybe, more accurately, we're not sure what he can be. There are nice, fluffy door-next-door Beta heroes, but there are also Beta heroes who are thinkers, dreamers, poets, and the like. And even Beta heroes who kick butt when they have to.

    Which heroes are Beta heroes, anyway? On AARList earlier this year there was a discussion of Alpha heel heroes. One reader mentioned that she loved Alpha heels and that she went back to those books when she wanted something to fall back on. She explained, "Most of the first books I read were by Jude Deveraux, Judith McNaught, Julie Garwood, LaVyrle Spencer, and others. Mostly historicals, and definitely full of Alpha jerks. That's what drew me into romance, and what I like to fall back on when I need a good read." Hmmm. I dunno here. McNaught, sure. Lots of Alpha jerks, some plain old Alphas as well. Deveraux, yes, Alphas - although most of her Alphas were far less "jerky" than those in the historicals that came before her. (That's why I loved her books so much at the time.) But Garwood and Spencer? I don't really see their heroes as Alphas, and definitely not as heels. I'd consider Garwood's heroes to be "Gammas," if you accept that term. I can't think of a hero in a Garwood historical, Alpha or not, doing anything that could make him qualify as being a jerk. Also, almost all of Spencer's heroes are considered to be Beta or Gamma heroes.

    What do you think? Are Garwood and Spencer heroes Alpha, Beta, or Gamma? Do you think of them as Alpha heels? Maybe it depends on what you really want in a hero. Maybe some readers think that any man who goes into battles and yells a lot is a jerk, even if he never hurts the heroine. That could be the result of living in PC times. Just as it is also possible that many of the readers who say they are bored by Beta heroes do not know which heroes are Betas. That could be likely, considering how dull the definitions usually make them sound. <g>

    AAR's Beta Heroes List is full of great heroes who are nice but still strong, even if they aren't Alphas. Anyone who thinks Beta heroes are automatically wimps should read Mary Balogh's Lord Carew's Bride. Even though Lord Carew's name is Hartley Wade, he still kicks butt - literally. Because of a point of honor, he agrees to a boxing match with the evil Lionel Kersey, even though Hartley is disabled. (I guess Lionel Kersey is the Alpha villain.)

    Mick Tremore in Judith Ivory's The Proposition is another Beta hero. I can hear the protests now. But he can't be a Beta hero, he was too much fun! (In fact, he's not the only Judith Ivory's Beta; James from Sleeping Beauty fills the bill as well.)

    LLB uses Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby as an example of a cinematic Beta hero, pointing out that many a screwball comedy's hero is a Beta. She adds, "This kind of hero is attractive for an entirely different reason than the Alpha hero attracts readers. Alpha heroes are bad boys while Beta heroes attract out of comfort factor. Yes, they may be comical, but the experience of loving this guy isn't going to be scary." She believes this is the reason we're more attracted to Beta men in real life than Alphas to the max, although that comfort factor is just a "hop, skip, and jump" from boredom in a novel.

    AAR's Marguerite Kraft agrees with LLB in that Beta heroes can be too dull; an author who writes a Beta runs "the risk of being so nice there's no conflict." She mentioned to a traditional Regency she'd recently read - Susannah Carleton's A Twist of Fate: "I found [Carleton's book] boring. I liked the hero... he was a nice guy, did the dishes, polished the silver, fed the heroine's animals in a snowstorm. I'd probably like to marry him, but reading about him made me yawn. Where you have a Beta hero, you need a serious conflict." To make her point, she compares Carleton's romance with Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerd in Shining Armor, another romance featuring a Beta hero. "But he's got problems: the heroine doesn't know he exists, and then he's left to die on an airplane and has to figure out how to pilot it, and then he's stuck on a desert island with the heroine and not much food, and then.... You get the idea. If a hero is kind of boring, the plot has to make up for it, and IMHO, Beta heroes are kind of boring."

    Blythe also sees the hero from Thompson's book as "a great example of a Beta hero that works, and part of what works is that he gets to step up to the plate. Land a plane when he's never tried it before? No problem...he's played computer games." Another "classic" Beta for Blythe is Jesse, from Carla Kelly's Wedding Journey. "He never set out to be anyone's hero, but he's stuck behind with his new wife (With whom he's been secretly in love for years) and a collection of hospital patients. I think he shows how 'dependable' can become 'heroic.'"

    Over on AARList Linda says, "Betas tend to make me grind my teeth. The hero of Devlin's Light by Mariah Stewart was just sooooo damn nice that I was sure he was a serial killer! But, no he was just a reeeeeellly nice guy who constantly put the heroine first, even when she was being selfish and annoying!" On the other hand, Karen likes Beta heroes, but she often feels left out because so many readers prefer Alpha heroes. "Sob, sob, I'm all alone searching for Beta heroes among the crowds of Alphas... Mary Balogh writes a lot of Beta heroes. Some are 100% Beta (Gentle Conquest, A Gift of Daisies, Lord Carew's Bride), and some are more on the borderline, but most of her heroes are essentially good guys at heart, with no desire to dominate the heroine. (Which is sort of my definition of an Alpha, they want to dominate the heroine, although they may learn the error of their ways."

    AAR's Sandy Coleman generally isn't crazy about Beta heroes: "To be honest, Beta heroes are sometimes problematic for me. I tend to be drawn - in fiction, anyway - to stronger, classic Alphas. I think it's all part of the sweep-me-away part of the fantasy, which is something I was looking for when I began reading romance a long time ago and what I'm still drawn to now. A true Beta, especially when they are done as the 'real' kind of guy, sometimes do seem boring and somewhat bland to me. I mean, I'd rather date George Clooney than the guy who lives next door. Again, romance is largely fantasy for me. I'm not always proud of being bored by nice guy heroes, but it certainly does happen. But, there are some magical Beta heroes and to me the ultimate is Blue Reynard from Ruth Wind's In the Midnight Rain. The perfection of this guy just slays me. He's a botanist who carefully tends his flowers, is incredibly solicitous of an ancient Siamese cat, and drives to the next town to buy condoms to avoid embarrassing the heroine. (What a guy!) But, again, a guy that perfect is a fantasy - albeit a Beta one."

    Like Sandy, LLB only likes certain types of Beta heroes. "While I love bad boy heroes as much as anyone else in fiction, I'd never want to be involved with one in real life. And while I married a really nice guy, I'm not sure I'd want to read a romance featuring a hero like him - it would probably be boring." She continues, "I think it's difficult to feature a nice-guy hero in a romance because it's less dramatic, and because the author runs the risk of creating a hero who comes off as a wuss or as passive-aggressive, and neither attribute screams 'masculine.' But if a Beta is struggling within, like Grayson Thane from Nora Roberts' Born in Ice, or has struggled, like Avery from Connie Brockway's My Dearest Enemy, than I'm sold." Another sort of angle that succeeds for LLB also comes from real life experience. After acknowledging the strength of her own personality (some would say bossy), she adds, "Sometimes when my husband and I disagree, I realize I'm angry because he didn't give in. Then I realize that if he did, I wouldn't respect him as much as I do for standing his own ground, and yes, even at times convincing me he's right. So what I'm saying is that I like Betas who are "Beta plus."

    Betas as Secondaries?

    Like Sandy and LLB, some fans want to read primarily about Alpha heroes (with some Gamma heroes thrown in for good measure). Indeed, for years, that's all readers had to choose from. It seemed the only Betas in romances were the boring men the heroines left behind when they fell in love with (or more likely, were abducted by) the Alpha hero. Luckily, for the most part, writers got away from that and started giving better roles to Betas, even when those roles were as secondary characters.

    Sometimes a Beta is just nice to have around, as a secondary hero. One of my favorite early romances was the first book in Valerie Vayle's Lady of Fire series. The hero, Roque, was definitely an Alpha hero - a pirate in fact. And yes, he was exciting and passionate, and he managed to be Alpha without completely pissing me off. But the character who made that book for me was Count Leon, the older, kind, sickly noble who married the heroine, Garlanda, so that she would not give birth to the hero's child out of wedlock. So sometimes, in the midst of Alphas, a Beta can be a breath of fresh air. Yes, the hero and heroine really were called Roque and Garlanda. I think the author had fun writing this book, don't you? (By the way, "Valerie Vayle" was a pseudonym for a collaboration, and part of that writing team now writes mysteries as "Jill Churchill.")

    Anne Stuart often writes contrasting heroes and heroines; witness the primary and secondary romances in both A Rose at Midnight and To Love a Dark Lord, which I think is one of the best secondary romances out there. In fact, the subplot about Lady Barbara and Nathanial is such a strong story that some people thought it detracted from the main romance.

    A classic "Beta secondary hero" is Theo in Johanna Lindsey's Defy not the Heart. He is the young gay man who acts as the heroine's "lady's maid." He is a wonderful and funny contrast to the huge, domineering Ranulf. Theo was especially needed in this book because the relationship of Ranulf and Reina got off to such a rocky start. Even people who love Alpha heroes don't seem to mind having a Beta as a secondary character. A lot of people love Lindsey's Defy not the Heart, not just because of the Alpha hero (especially when he starts to show his playful side), but because of secondary characters such as Theo.

    I wonder if Beta fans read some of these novels not for the Alpha heroes, but for the secondary characters. Do you think Beta secondaries allow the author to wipe away some excess testosterone and make them more enjoyable for everyone? Or do they simply comic relief or a foil for the hero?

    Are we Harder on Betas?

    Even fans of Beta heroes seem very hard on Beta heroes who take a moral misstep. This led me to ask: Are we less forgiving of Beta heroes who do wrong? I've read romances where an Alpha hero did awful things, but I forgave him. But if a Beta hero does wrong, I am less likely to enjoy the book - at least less likely to forgive the Beta. I come down on them more strongly. And I don't think I'm the only one. On AAR's Reviews Message Board, someone accused Julia Quinn's Bridgerton men of being "passive-aggressive." Some people laughed, others said "Hmmm."

    Many readers loved the Beta hero of Jane Ashford's The Bargain. LLB granted it DIK status, in part because she loved the scientist hero, Lord Alan, who reminded her of the absent-minded professor types Cary Grant played to such perfection. I couldn't disagree more. For the first half of the book I was dismayed by his behavior; I found him arrogant and condescending toward the heroine. He assumed that Ariel, the heroine, must be vapid and interested only in trivial things because she was a woman. Yet later, we meet his mother and learn that not only is she intelligent, but she was also a pioneer in the education of women. So where did Lord Alan pick up these ideas about women? Lord Alan also brought the logic of science to the rest of his life. There's a scene early in the novel where he can't enjoy a play because he keeps dissecting the illogical plot. He had also cut himself off from his feelings. I have encountered my share of scientists in my life, and they have feelings and enjoy the arts, just like everyone else. On the other hand, as much as I disliked the hero in the beginning of the book, like LLB, I loved his transformation. If I hadn't found him so obnoxious at first, this book would have been a DIK for me, too. Is this a case of different strokes? Or maybe I was less forgiving of Lord Alan because I was a biology major.

    AARList's Donna Shelton posits that it's more difficult to forgive a Beta hero because "when they 'do wrong' they are betraying not just the heroine, but their own values." She adds that an Alpha hero behaving similarly is more consistent with his "Alpha nature, we expect it, and his redemption is all the sweeter." On the other hand, she writes: "When the Beta hero acts out he just disappoints us. We readers tend to find unacceptable [behavior] that seems inconsistent with how [a character] has been developed/portrayed. Making a Beta hero behave badly without it seeming inconsistent with the character is probably harder than portraying the same behavior convincingly in an Alpha hero."

    I agree with Donna about inconsistencies in character. When I read The Bargain, I thought Lord Alan's character was inconsistent with what we learned about his upbringing. I was sure there was some tragic love story in his past that explained his behavior, but that never came up in the story. Another Beta hero who was inconsistent was Jared Austin in Emily Dalton's Dream Baby, a pediatrician who has many patients whose parents are in show business. Yet... he is disdainful of show business people. I found this combination jarring, to say the least. Naturally, the heroine was an actress. Let the conflicts ensue! Unfortunately, this meant that he spent the whole book being disdainful of her. At one point, he accused her of having "just about enough maternal instinct to fill a thimble." For a doctor, he apparently didn't know much about the importance of impartial observation.

    Former AAR Reviewer Deborah Barber noticed an inconsistency problem in the character of Geoffrey, the Beta hero in Deborah Simmons' The deBurgh Bride. As she wrote in her review, "Geoffrey's 'niceness' seemed at odds with his utter lack of interest in finding out why Elene was the way she was. Just why was she such a shrew? While medieval marriages were generally for political and/or economic reasons, I always feel the hero should be more concerned about his wife than he is about his holdings. The book failed a bit in this respect."

    Still, I'm torn here. Just because a hero is a Beta, does that mean he has to be a nice guy all the time? Even nice guys have breaking points. Even nice guys can do wrong. Even nice guys can get cranky. But ... that doesn't mean we have to enjoy reading about it. Maybe we dislike bad behavior in a Beta hero because most of us are drawn to Betas in real life, and bad behavior from a Beta hits too close to home. We can read about an Alpha hero being a bad, bad boy (as long as he makes up for it) and still live the fantasy. But when a Beta hero goes bad, it reminds us a little too much of that nice boyfriend who suddenly went from Gary Goodbuy to John Jerk (or the husband who cheated on his wife, hid his assets, then asked for a divorce). Or maybe, as Donna suggests, we are angrier with Betas who go bad because there is a greater sense of betrayal.

    As mentioned above, one of our readers shared that she found Julia Quinn's Bridgertons to be "passive-aggressive." Maggie wrote that when a heroine is equal to a challenging hero, there's no problem for her accepting a "diamond in the rough." She pointed to Cam from Nora Roberts' Sea Swept. She loved Cam "because Anna was such a match for him." She's also "fine" with "obviously campy" books, those books featuring prose, activities, and adventures "so obviously removed from reality that they are not meant as genuine representations of a real romance." A perfect example for Maggie would be My Fair Lady.

    "Professor Higgins is actually pretty cruel to Eliza if you examine his behavior. But this movie captures both characters fabulously and humanly and wonderfully. Higgins is not meant to serve as a model for a great teacher. He is meant to be funny, and he is. And Eliza is, at the end, a match for him in terms of giving as good as she gets. A lot of early romances were written like this, not as genuine examples of love stories but as completely campy, sexy romps. Because they were so silly, I was never really offended by them. Quinn's books aren't campy. But they aren't filled, in my opinion, with compassionate, loving heroes either. What bothers me is that these characters are held up as being wonderful heroes, far better than those in other people's favorite romances, all because they stop their abuse before actually hitting a woman. I appreciate that but require something a bit more of a hero."

    Jennifer is in the same camp; in the only Bridgerton book she's read - Offer from a Gentleman - she thought the hero was a "huge jerk," adding, "It started out great, and Benedict Bridgerton seemed like a wonderful nice guy, but then he pressured and manipulated the reluctant heroine to become his mistress - all for her own good, of course. Benedict acted all concerned for her welfare and insisted that she was too good to be a mere servant, but he totally ignored her protests and acted as though her moral qualms were foolish and irrelevant. This turned me off the whole series, and I haven't read another Quinn since."

    Some readers do think this sort of feeling is far-fetched, but I'm not so sure. I feel the same as Maggie and Jennifer when I hear readers extol the virtues of the hero of The Bargain. There's nothing like feeling left out of the parade. (sniff sniff) I've read a lot of books where the Alpha hero does something completely nasty, and yet I still managed to love that book. Stuart's To Love a Dark Lord is a great example. He treats the heroine badly and wants to use her for his revenge, yet at the same time, he keeps rescuing her. But in general, I think of him as a cool hero, dark and tormented and nearly impossible to reform. I don't dwell on the bad things he did. Yet when a Beta hero screws up, I remember that more than I remember the "nice guy" quotient.

    Sandy has a slightly different take on Julia Quinn's heroes, although she agrees that the hero of An Offer from a Gentleman was manipulative. "Quinn's heroes do strike me as Beta, but I think their ambivalence about themselves is more of the key to who they are. They're wealthy, come from a very loving family, and are the kind of people to whom things come easily and I think she does a good job of portraying them as attractive people who recognize that they've been allowed to coast through life. As for being overly manipulative, I did feel that in An Offer from a Gentleman, but can't say I've noticed it since."

    But like me, Jennifer (who happens to enjoy the "magnificent bastard" hero in all his glory), is also less forgiving of Beta heroes. She speculates that an Alpha hero in a plot similar to An Offer from a Gentleman "would have just openly forced the heroine to become his mistress whether she liked it or not, and then afterwards would have repented," adding, "Benedict was more persuasive, pretending that it was for her welfare and not just his own selfish desires. He did repent in the end and married her, but up until that point he seemed hypocritical and sly. I guess that for me, honest upfront assholery seems a bit more likable than slick dishonest assholery, if that makes any sense."

    Are some Beta heroes lacking in the behavior department? I have heard the same complaint about other Beta heroes, including the hero of The Bargain. So, do Beta heroes tend toward the passive-aggressive? Is this just a flaw some of them have? Or ... are we expecting too much of them again? What do you think? Are there a lot of Beta heroes exhibiting bad behavior? Or is this another sign of being less forgiving of them? Maybe above all, this is yet another case of "Different strokes for different folks."

    Gamma Rays

    Some readers do ask for something more - the Gamma hero. The Gamma hero, for those who believe he exists, combines the best qualities of the Alpha and the Beta. They are leaders, but they aren't domineering. Some readers refer to Gamma heroes as "cuddly Alphas." For example, Linda says, "My favorites may be Gammas but I think of them as "cuddly Alphas" or 'educable Alphas' - Julie Garwood's Duncan or Gabriel fall into this category as does Max in JAK's Grand Passion."

    All the way back in 1997 LLB wrote: "I love the idea of the Gamma male. Many readers, while loving a Beta male in real life, find them a bit too wimpy in a romance. And, often Alpha heroes are too bitter and mean for readers to fall in love with. Some of the listers tried to describe actors who fall into each category, including Tom Hanks as Beta, Bruce Willis as Alpha, and Mel Gibson as Gamma."

    Yet there is controversy about what constitutes a Gamma. (Constitutes! I've made him sound like soup!) <g>

    Ashleigh mentions an exchange on AARList about the confusion surrounding the entire Gamma archetype. One group believes the Gamma is part Alpha, part Beta, someone who leads when necessary, but has "a soft gooey center." Another group believes that definition applies to the Alpha hero, who "can have a soft gooey center and still be Alpha [because] Alphas don't have to posture, they just have to lead." In order to accept the Gamma archetype, Ashleigh wants "sharper edges and more consensus." Still, she believes the Gamma archetype has potential because "Alpha and Beta are somewhat limiting, only two types to describe all heroes isn't a lot."

    Shelley, on the other hand, thinks the use of the term Gamma is confusing. She writes, "Some people switch the Beta and Gamma definitions.... Some people use Beta to mean part leader part nice (which is closer to the real definition) and some people use Gamma to mean that." She posted on AARList that this is "why no one really uses it except for one particular web site and their affiliate lists/boards. It's basically a useless term, so as I said, I never use it."

    Hey, don't blame us, Deb Stover brought the term to us years ago. But to be fair, while many readers like the "Alpha, Beta, Gamma" characterizations, quite a few readers disagree with the whole idea of a Gamma hero while others think all of these characterizations are limiting. Is the Gamma really an Alpha in a different set of clothes? Does the Gamma hero exist, or is he a cute name made up to make readers feel less guilty about enjoying the Alpha hero?

    In a Write Byte written by Suzanne Brockmann shortly after AAR's first look at the Gamma hero, the author shared the following: "I'm not sure I buy this whole Gamma thing. It seems to me that Gamma is just a re-labeling of the Alpha male - simply to ease the souls of the people who are so certain they dislike Alpha males!!! The lines between Alpha and Beta are not black and white. (But grey does not Gamma make. . .) IMO, a true leader (i.e. true Alpha) can fight the battle, nurse the wounded, cook dinner for the troops and wash up afterwards. He can negotiate peace treaties as well as go to war."

    This isn't the first argument we've had in this column about the Gamma hero. In a 1988 column, Beverly Medos (who once wrote a column for AAR) takes the position that the Gamma archetype was suggested because of a lack of agreement on just what constitutes an Alpha hero, and why the Alpha hero has become synonymous for many readers with Alpha heel. She wrote, "I've finally figured out what it is that's so wrong about that concept to me - possibly all lead characters (hero and/or heroine) in romances are Alphas in some form or another. They have to be in order to begin their own 'pack' or family. Personally, I think we need a new set of distinctions if we really want to label our romance characters in some way because the term Alpha is getting pretty murky."

    But then, there was plenty of confusion about what Beta heroes are, as well. And some people think that the term "Alpha" automatically means that the hero must be mean, while others, like Beverly, think that's a crock - and that a cuddly Alpha is just that, an Alpha who happens to be adorable. (After all, a good leader isn't likely to be an abusive jerk...) It is possible that some people use the term "Gamma hero" because they are scared to admit that they like Alpha heroes. In these PC times, maybe some people don't think it's "cool" to enjoy reading about an Alpha hero. They fear that if a hero has some bluster to him, they must turn away and say "Ewww. Get away. Alpha heel. Ewww."

    This attitude is more prevalent than we think, especially outside the romance community. In a chat in the writing community I belong to, one of the members (not a regular romance fan) said that she had read a lot of JAKs in a row, but that she got sick of it because they had 'too many Alpha heroes.' And she was talking about recent JAK novels, not the early Jayne Castle or Stephanie James books! If I had been less polite, I might have responded with "Bwah hah hah! You think those are Alphas?! Go read some Rosemary Rogers and come back in the morning." I really couldn't imagine someone being threatened or annoyed or whatever by JAK heroes. They are too damned nice, even when they are strong. Even if they are Alpha heroes (and the jury is still out on that), they may be nice Alphas, a far cry from the domineering, arrogant Alpha heroes of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Jennifer has another objection to the concept of Gamma heroes, arguing that "the more we start stuffing characters into categories, the less comfortable I get, because it implies that romance novels really are as formulaic as their critics say - and good romances aren't." She can buy into the Alpha and Beta archetypes because "they represent large trends into which a lot of heroes generally sort of it." It's those "in-between categories," though, that trouble Jennifer, "because a good hero isn't a cookie-cutter production who can be slotted into a type."

    "For example, I think we can all agree that Warrick from Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey is Alpha, yet by the end he's taking advice from the heroine, begging for her hand in marriage, and generally treating her as his equal. The hero from Mary Jo Putney's Angel Rogue is Beta in the friendly and gentle way he treats the heroine, but he's a spy with a tortured past who can (and has) killed people with his bare hands. So did Warrick start out Alpha and get Beta? Is the hero (Lord Robert) from Angel Rogue a Beta with Alpha traits? Is Jamie Fraser from Outlander a Gamma? Who really cares? The things that make these characters defy categorization are exactly the things that make them good heroes. Jamie Fraser is an individual, and the reason that you enjoy spending several thousand pages with him is because he's too complex to be boxed this way."

    On that aspect, I agree with Jennifer. The best heroes are complex, definitely more than a narrow set of characteristics. There are Betas who lead, and there are Alphas who stop to smell the roses, pet the dogs, whatever. Do the labels matter, or do they sometimes get in the way? If the hero's label is keeping you from reading a good book, then I'd say that label got in the way. Alpha or Beta, or Gamma for that matter, what matters to me is the hero, not the label. If he is a good guy, that's great. If he's a bad boy, the author had better give me good reasons for his behavior. Good boy or bad, if he screws up, that can be wonderful, too, as long as I can believe in the reasons for his behavior, and as long as he makes up for his behavior with the heroine. And as long as he and the heroine are a good match. Can we ask for anything more?

    Time to Post to the Message Board

  • What are your bookie behaviors? Do you do any of the following, or something else we haven't mentioned?
    • Are you impelled by some force within to read the anthology in order and/or to read the entire anthology?
    • Have you ever gone through several copies of a book on a rack looking for the one in the most pristine condition? Have you ever bought a second copy of a book you loved because the first had been loved nearly as well as the Velveteen Rabbit? Do you ever pick the cover with the worn spine at the UBS instead of the one in better condition because you know it'll be easier to read?
    • Do you have favorite places to read? Do you have one chair or spot on the couch where you feel most comfortable reading? Do you tend to read in different places depending on the type of book you're reading? Do you keep a book by your computer for when load times are slow, or in your purse for stoplights or waiting for the bus or train?
    • Did you set a goal for the number of books you wanted to read this year? Are you on target or not, and if not, what are you telling yourself about it?
    • Do people marvel at the number of books in your house or apartment? What do they say to you, and how do you respond?
    • Do you maintain written or computer lists of your books? Have you ever bought a book more than once by accident? What's your lending policy?
    • Do you read more than one book at a time?
    • Have you ever bought a book based on its cover? Have you ever avoided a book because of its cover, or for a reason others might consider trivial, such as the hero has red hair?
    • Are there ever times when you choose a book to read, then put it back, choose another, put it back, and then complain about having nothing to read? Is this when you're likely to re-read a favorite or comfort read? If not, when is that likely to occur? Or are you someone who never re-reads a book?

  • How do you store your books, do you keep any after you've read them, and if so, where do you keep them? For instance, do you separate books tbr from books you're keeping? Do you keep books in alphabetical order, subject or sub-genre, on shelves or under-bed boxes, etc? Do you sneak a peek at the end? If so, for all types of books or only certain types - ie, romances yes, mysteries no.

    On Glomming:

    • Do your bookshelves contain more books by individual authors, many books by fewer authors, or a roughly 50/50 mix?
    • Have most of your gloms fallen into a certain genre/sub-genre or are they authors spread all over the spectrum?
    • Although I no longer GWHR (glomming without having read), I still engage in more glom-reading than I know is good. Haven't we all read a great number of books back to back by a single author out of enthusiasm when it probably would have been better to dole out the books more slowly, over a longer period of time so as to avoid overdosing?
    • On the flip side, do you sometime "save" books by certain authors while at other times can barely wait to tear into their latest?
    • At what point do you decide that an author you once thought was glom-worthy is no longer worth reading?
    • Do you judge a glom by its size or the effort involved?
  • How do you define the Alpha hero? The Beta Hero? Do you see any use for the idea of the Gamma hero? If so, how would you define him? If not, is he simply a way in which readers can admit they like Alpha heroes in a P.C. world?

  • Is it at all useful to think about character types or, by doing so, are we simply furthering the idea that romances are "fill in the blank?"

  • Are Beta heroes boring? Name some Beta heroes you've loved (and why) and some others that didn't excite you (and why).

  • What's the romance novel difference between the Alpha hero and the Alpha heel? Give examples of both, and your feelings about them.

  • Do we hold Beta heroes to a higher standard because they're the "good guys?" Do you buy into the idea that many are actually passive aggressive? If so, is passive aggression "worse" or "better" than active aggression?
  •  

    TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
    Laurie Likes Books & Anne Marble
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