The Need for Recognition

mirror This past week, I read The Mane Squeeze by Shelly Laurenston. About halfway through the book I realised the heroine’s best friend was black and though she had previously struck me as slightly annoying, I finished the book eagerly anticipating a sequel with a romance story for her.

Why was I all of a sudden so interested in this character? The long and short answer: it’s because she was black. A slightly annoying white best friend would have garnered no more than cursory interest for me, but once I learned that Blayne – in the most superficial of ways – “resembled” me, I was invested in her story.

I have existed for most of my literate life on a steady diet of romance novels and ninety-nine percent of the characters in these novels are Caucasian – and American. I expect that for the rest of my literate life, my diet will remain pretty much unchanged. African-American romance novels are hard to come by in my neck of the woods and because I don’t read with race in the forefront of my mind, it is very easy to accept the status quo. That said, my reaction to Blayne (with whom I had absolutely nothing else in common apart from skin colour) highlighted for me a subtle but present undercurrent of need for recognition in my romance.

It is a need which goes beyond race. For example, I suspect that my ambivalence towards African-American romance is strongly linked to the fact that though I am black, I’m not American. And so, the differences between “white” and “black” American-centric romances are not stark enough for me to go out of my way to read more “black” (American) books. Whether the heroine has black twists or a blonde French plait, her country is the same, her accent is not mine, and her culture is still different than mine. Drilling further down, outside of the romance genre, there is ample Caribbean representation in the literary world, but I believe I still lack representation as much of these works focus on the grass-roots Caribbean. I, in contrast, live a charmed life.  I’ve come to the realization that I hanker after bits and pieces of my own story, in the romances I read. If Blayne had been described as not only black, but overweight, short, from the Caribbean and a lawyer, I would probably have keeled over, unable to handle all that recognition in one little character.

I know that many people read romance as a form of escapism (I include myself in this bunch) and when you’re escaping, it’s generally accepted that you’re headed towards a paradise of your own making. I suppose this is why, though reading of perfect love stories makes for a fine paradise, reading of perfect love stories when the people, the surroundings, the events feel somehow nearer and dearer to your heart, this is when it evolves to the sublime.

All of this is not to say that I want to read about myself in romance novels. But to recognise bits of myself, well, I would never pass on that experience. It’s the type of thing to turn a mediocre novel into a Desert Isle Keeper; that emotional tug that can’t be logically placed in a review and may be difficult to describe to a book club compatriot. It’s the reason New Jersey natives love (or hate) Janet Evanovich; it’s the reason we have “chica lit” and AA romance. On some level, recognition, even in fiction, counts for a lot.

Do you ever feel the need to connect on a more personal level during your reading experiences?

Do you think it’s either dangerous or ridiculous to seek that sort of connection?

-Abi Bishop

13 thoughts on “The Need for Recognition

  1. On the subject of characters in a story and connecting with them on a personal level. I feel that it isn’t the characters physical appearance that we identify with as much as it’s their thoughts, feelings and actions. When we imagine ourselves within the story, we often think about what we would be like in that situation or how we might have done it differently. I feel this is the form of escapism we seek when we read and what makes reading a story so different from watching the same story on TV where everything is visual.
    I also don’t feel that authors necessarily stereotype a culture when they make a character in the story opinionated. People will always have diverse personalities and opinions regardless of their cultural background. If the characters in the story weren’t a little controversial, it wouldn’t be as intersting.

  2. Abi, have you read one of Laurenston’s earlier books, “The Beast in Him?” Hilarious and sweet, and it also features a black heroine. It wasn’t until I read the book the second time that I realized she wasn’t white: Laurenston’s unique, I think, in incorporating different races seamlessly. Regardless, it’s a teriffic book!

  3. “Personally I read to escape. However… I don’t mind reading books set in geographical areas I’m familiar with or focusing on occupations I’m familiar with, even if I notice irritating mistakes. All in all I don’t care where they are set or who the protagonists are, or the color of their skin, for that matter. If the book is well written, I can relate to them regardless.”

    I think part of being well written is not succumbing to stereotypes. I love Linda Howard’s books set in the south because she writes with authenticity about the people of the region. Not all southern women are vapid airheads with a conservative bent politically. Not all southern men are either emasculated gentlemen or ruthless racists. I believe it is fine for authors to interject the occasional caricature, but with many writers I think they blur the line between character and caricature when they really do not know the region they are writing about. If we have some personal investment in a particular region, race or ethnicity, I think that there is a greater likelihood that we will be more critical.

  4. Lots of food for thought, Abi.
    Personally I read to escape. However… I don’t mind reading books set in geographical areas I’m familiar with or focusing on occupations I’m familiar with, even if I notice irritating mistakes. All in all I don’t care where they are set or who the protagonists are, or the color of their skin, for that matter. If the book is well written, I can relate to them regardless. I must admit, however, finding it harder to relate to M/M relationships. Okay as a sideline in the book, but not as the main couple.

    I do NOT want to read, however, about protagonists or their friends/family with certain personal problems or diseases. Call me superficial, but those problems are the ones I want to escape from for a while.

  5. “Why couldn’t the author just write that the characters smelled nice?”

    LOL! And in that day and time they probably did NOT smell very nice. …and speaking of nice, heroines that are too nice to be true are sometimes hard for me to identify with. Do we tend to identify with characters who are more like us in personality? If we like the hero/heroine from the get-go are we more likely to overlook historical inconsistencies?

  6. I’m an African American woman that grew up in Europe and the South(military brat), I do not read AA romances as they all seem to revolve around what my friends talk about and that is defintely NOT an escape for me.
    I too have read “the mane squeeze” and was totally estatic that she didn’t over do the sterotypes and just made me appreciate Shelley all the more. Now I have come across recently an author that everytime a certain character came up in the book she always described him as “the black vamp” hmmm does he have a name. It annoyed me to the point I even wrote to the author, no answer. My email to the author stated I get enough of the calling out of a persons race from the news I don’t need it thrown at me in the books. I could have sworn usually you say a persons name and describe them, for the rest of the story a name will do, but it just made me realize he was “the black vamp” to her not an actual character, very disappointing.

  7. Interesting column, Abi. Like Mary, I’m southern (US) and I won’t read too many romances based in the South because I end up getting annoyed with the stereotypes. Also, if the book is set in a place that I’m familiar with, the errors or lack of detail revolving around the setting really stick out and I ususally can’t move past them. I also won’t read books with teachers in them because I want to distance myself from my reality in my reading. It’s all about the fantasy for me.

  8. I’m a Catholic. Whenever a Catholic character appears in a romance, I just know that the author is going to get it wrong. Usually she does. I’ve often thought about hiring myself out as an expert consultant in that area.

  9. I think it is sometimes harder to read about your own culture than it is another culture. I am a southerner (American) and unless the author is from the south, I rarely read southern/Civil War romances. Too many times they either get the regionalisms wrong or they devolve into stereotypes. When reading about a culture not my own, I am less nit-picky and hopefully I learn something new. I would love to read a Caribbean romance (maybe Abi can write one!). Other than the fact that they were well written, one of the reasons I liked T.J. Bennett’s books so well were they were outside the usual setting.

    • Mary: I think it is sometimes harder to read about your own culture than it is another culture. I am a southerner (American) and unless the author is from the south, I rarely read southern/Civil War romances. Too many times they either get the regionalisms wrong or they devolve into stereotypes. When reading about a culture not my own, I am less nit-picky and hopefully I learn something new. I would love to read a Caribbean romance (maybe Abi can write one!). Other than the fact that they were well written, one of the reasons I liked T.J. Bennett’s books so well were they were outside the usual setting.

      Mary, I agree with you, but if you were German, you might not like T.J. Bennett’s books all that much. I read The Legacy after it got a favorable review on AAR, and it was a huge disappointment. I’m not a Historian and so I probably won’t even note a lot of anachronisms and other mistakes, but apart from the fact that I found the plot old and clichéd and the characters TSTL, there were a few things that were really annoying. The way people addressed each other seemed to be wrong, and several times, it was mentioned that the hero used a sandalwood and lemon soap, and the heroine a rosemary and vanilla soap (or was it the other way around?), which their housekeeper made herself. These ingredients – except maybe the rosemary – would have been highly expensive luxuries in the north of Europe at the time, so it’s unlikely a printing press owner of modest means would have owned them or used them for making soap. Why couldn’t the author just write that the characters smelled nice?

  10. Hey Laura, I would love to have that problem. At least that would mean an Italian had found his way into a novel when previously, all I had been reading about was Spaniards :-)

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  12. I was just thinking a couple of days ago, while I was finishing a book with an Italian hero, that I hated characters with aspects too near to me. (I’m Italian and live near Venice, Italy)
    Why? Because I see all the mistakes the author makes with stereotypes.
    In this particular case, the hero loved children, was very close to his family, and said family was very critical of a woman who had a child out of wedlock. This was supposed to be Italian? On which planet?
    We love children just as much (or as little) as any other people, we may or may not be close to our siblings, and above all, we have the lowest marriage rate of all European States. Most young people do not get married, they just live together, have kids, and it’s absolutely accepted by society, whatever the pope may say.
    So the story was ruined for me because I just could not relate. The opposite, I suppose, from your own experience. If the hero was eg Ukranian, I wouldn’t have noticed, but he was Italian, so these inconsistencies screamed out to me

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