Thursday, December 22, 2011

Authorial Intent and Reviews.

Jennie, at Dear Author writes:

"When I address authorial intent in reviews, it’s generally because I’m confused or bothered by something in a book. I don’t ever pretend to *know* an author’s intent, but sometimes I have ideas about what I *think* the author was going for. For instance, in the latest Joanna Bourne, I felt like the author made choices that deliberately made the heroine weaker than the hero (though no one seems to agree with me on that, which is fine). As is often the case, I chalked it up to romance genres conventions – the hero is favored a bit (by the author and presumably the reader) over the heroine, and the hero is expected to assert some mastery over the heroine. So I am assuming that the story is written a certain way to please the average reader.

"Is it wrong for me to assume I know the author’s intent? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m not just doing it to be an asshole – I’m addressing something that bothers me, and furthermore why it bothers me (my belief that romance still tends to be rather conventionally sexist in a lot of ways). I think I need to acknowledge my assumptions about the author’s intent to give context to why I feel what I feel."


I just about entirely don't respond to reviews or speak in the comment trail of discussions about my own books.  It's not that I'm not grateful for the interest.  But,

-- I don't want readers to think I'm looking over their shoulder when they discuss the books.  That has to be quelling.

-- I think books have to stand up for themselves, without explanation or defense.  

-- There's not much to say if somebody doesn't like the work.  It's like lichee nuts.  Lots of wonderful, intelligent, interesting folks are going to not like my books or lichee nuts and no amount of discussion is going to change this.

-- The most important reason I don't respond to comment or criticism is that I don't want to make a fool of myself, which is what folks mostly do when they try to defend something they've written.

But, breaking a long habit of keeping my mouth closed, I'm going to go ahead and respond here.


Dear Jennie,

I don't deliberately make the female protagonist of my stories less strong, competent or active than the male protagonist.  If I felt the Historical Romance genre demanded that the heroine be weaker than the hero, I wouldn't write Historical Romance.

It's true my heroes tend to be more skilled in killing than my heroines.  If there were only one sort of strength -- killing people -- then I'd have no argument.  But I'm trying to write stories about the decisions characters make, rather than stories that are primarily about killing people.   I'm writing about the strength that's shown by decision-making.     

At the end of Black Hawk, Adrian has grown to be the kind of man who refrains from killing his enemy until he has solid, incontrovertible proof of guilt.  Adrian's story, through several books, has been about acquiring ethics and self-control, not about learning to kill more skillfully.

And Justine's strength?  In Black Hawk I use Justine's willingness to give up her sister, her decision to risk her life to rescue the Caches, and her determination to overcome degradation and rape to show her strength.  She has spy skills -- they're probably better demonstrated in Forbidden Rose than in Black Hawk -- but I'm mainly interested in the hard choices she makes.

Is Adrian the 'better spy'?  He brings formidable spy skills to the table.  Consider his lockpicking.  He stands behind Justine and mentally complains about how slow she is getting through a door.  

But lookit at what's really happening in that scene.  Justine enticed him to that door, (which is why he's snarking at her.)  She holds all the knowledge in this situation.  In a few minutes she's going to make him do exactly what she wants.

Who's the master spy?  The boy who can pick locks?  Or that clever, clever girl with her knowledge and determination and her sure understanding of what makes him tick? 

I can't argue that you somehow should feel the balance of power and strength between hero and heroine is equal. Everybody who reads the book is going to have a different emotional response to what I consciously or unconsciously put in the story.  I can only say it is not my intention to show the heroine as weaker than the hero.



  1. I think part of the problem is that Adrian & Justine aren't just individuals - they're agents for a cause, and Justine's cause loses. That puts her at a disadvantage - not only is she the loser, she has to give up her country and her career - and then, on top of that, for a significant portion of the present story she's weak and injured. That naturally makes Adrian dominant.

    Of course, most of the time it's the hero who gets injured/ill, giving the heroine time to pounce, so maybe it means something that Justine is the one who must be broken apart for them to find their HEA?

    Dunno. I though you balanced them out as a couple really well, but it's true that while both have struggled and overcome painful childhoods, Adrian seems a little less damaged by it all.

  2. Interesting point. In the frame story, Justine is injured.

    I tend to think of this, writer-like, in terms of the number of words that cover the period Justine's in bed, dying by inches in various ways.

    It's not so many words.

    But, if you look at it from the reader's POV . . . maybe 3/4 of the book pass before Justine is back on her feet and snapping. That has to change the reader's perception.

    The business of her losing the war has to be factored in there as well.

  3. Christine1:39 PM

    I think that authors are in an incredibly difficult position when it comes to the internet, reviews etc. Like Caesar's wife you must be in many ways "above reproach." I've seen authors eviscerated for any number of things from agressive responses to readers to sharing of their personal/political beliefs. I agree that authors often have to step back from unfavorable reviews and discussions lest they be seen as "petty" or "contentious" but I also believe that when the question is factual, or in this case relating to the "intent" of an author, the author has every right and duty to speak up.
    One thing I like about "Dear Author" is that there are a number of reviewers and a number of viewpoints (often conflicting) and authors have and do post right alongside the readers. Courtney Milan is a frequent commenter along with other notable Romance authors. I think your response would be more than welcome there.

    I debated posting this because I wrote the review Jennie was initially responding to in her first discussion of "Black Hawk" and we had a back and forth in the comments over this same issue.

    (Incidentally Jane at Dear Author agreed with me about Adrian and Justine's equality while another reviewer there who hadn't read "Black Hawk" yet but had read another work of yours felt similarly to Jennie.)

    It's my opinion that your heroines are very strong and that Justine and Adrian are probably the most equal of any hero and heroine that I have ever read. I think your heroines are every bit as strong as their counterparts but their skills are often very different and realistic for their time, age, sex and situation. Jess could probably outthink and outplot Sebastian in many situations but she will never best him in an arm wrestling match. Annique was skilled enough to get the drop on Grey while blind but lacked the malice (or rage)to kill him or the murderous Leblanc in cold blood. I enjoyed that about her. Coversely I loved that you didn't shy away at all from Justine's chance at a revenge killing. Not that I am a lover of violence, but it made complete sense for Justine's character to be festering with that kind of impotent rage after her abuse. I also appreciated you chose a heroine for Adrian that was as experienced in her own ways as he was in his. So often the choice is made to create a perfect ethereal creature to help the tortured hero regain his humanity with her angelic help. Adrian and Justine loved and supported each other but ultimately they saved themselves. That Justine was as imperfect and interesting as Adrian was made their story for me. I saw them on either sides of a scale, one side going up, the other side going down and vice versa until they finally became level.

  4. Anonymous3:34 PM

    I love Christine's description of Adrian and Justine being on either side of a scale - much the way I was thinking about them. I will not put it as eloquently, but I think Adrian seems less damaged because he started with nothing and clawed/was yanked by Doyle and the rest into something far better. Whereas Justine was knocked down into the gutter at an age when Adrian was already picking locks. So he might have had the advantage of 'street smarts', but Justine has skills and subtleties with languages and plotting and that indefatigable nature which stack up unbelievably well against his set of abilities. It goes back to Grey and Annique and the other half of one's egg (pardon my misquote) - sameness wouldn't make any of your protagonists more suitable for one another. It is each character's unique - and not necessarily blatant - choices, strengths and weaknesses which make them so utterly believable. And, might I say, just perfect for one another in as far as perfect every gets.

  5. I felt that Hawk and Owl were actually well-matched.

    I know it is not the same as being equal -- but I feel that complementing each other was more important than being exactly the same.

    As the saying goes, like does not attract like.

    Did I feel Justine was weaker? No. You created a wonderful back story to show that she wasn't. Was Hawk the better spy? In some instances, yes -- but, again, the back story shows that there were other missions where Owl showed better skill.

  6. Hi Christine --

    You're so right about the danger of replying to reviews, and also about the sort of reviews and comments an author might reasonably respond to.

    I'm particularly sensitive to the notion Historical Romance, or any Romance, requires an unequal relationship. I just don't think this is so.

    My heroes and heroines are meant to be competent people who admire the strength and competence in each other. I hope the writing gives them a chance to show both their strengths and their weaknesses. It's one of the things I think about when I plot.

  7. Hi Anon --

    That's how I wanted to handle their skill sets. They're complements, not duplicates.

    But I have to convey their equality to the reader. I have to show that Justine's

    --"You're wearing the wrong kind of stripe in that waistcoat. It's not right for the class you wish to portray." --

    is evidence of hugely important spy skill set. Her knowledge and judgement are every bit as important as, (and a good deal rarer than,) Adrian's

    -- "You hold the knife like this." --

    Writing this, I have to keep in mind that the first sort of skill doesn't have the whiz-bang impact of the second. I have to somehow make sure the reader values both.

  8. Hi Tin --

    To the best of my ability, I try to write interesting people, both the protagonists and the other characters. I try to create a realistic relationship between the hero and heroine. Most especially, I want to give the heroine a quest that is of vital importance to her, and one that she succeeds in.

    Not everybody's going to like my people, for one reason or the other. Not everybody's going to 'see' my characters the way I do. I have to be okay with that.

  9. If there *is* a tendency in romance novels to show the heroine as weaker (and I'm not commenting on Black Hawk but on romance as a genre), it may be because the reader is usually female and usually relates to the heroine and usually wants to vicariously fall in love with the hero and find him irresistible. It's not so much that the heroine has a weaker character, but that the hero overcomes her resistance because, consciously or not, she wants him to. She has her own sort of power over him, but the emotional focus of the reader is usually on the heroine's feelings, not the hero's.

  10. Which has little to do with her actual strength of character, but more to do with appearances. She may be feisty, loyal, honest, brave, etc., etc. She may have to overcome some flaw or summon all her courage to allow herself to fall in love. But she still may seem weaker because she's giving in to an irresistible force.

  11. Hi Barbara --

    *g* I always think of the hero as the reward for a job well done.

    We experience the female character's doubts and weaknesses because we're accompanying her on her internal journey. We're with her in that nitty gritty she has to overcome.

    The hero, OTOH, is the 'sexual other'. The prize. The goal. Maybe he looks so good because we see him as the shiny present wrapped up in bright paper with a red bow on top.

  12. Um. What an image that is. *g*

  13. Anonymous7:35 PM

    But here in many ways we are following Adrians journey and Justine is the other.

    It always amazes me when women reviewers feel that male capacity for violence makes them stronger and don't value the female's strengths. Very sexist. DLS

  14. I'm intrigued and interested when an author shares information about intent, but I am not sure it has or should have much to do with how I interpret a work of literature. It's somewhat beside the point, when a novel like Black Hawk lends itself to multiple interpretations. That's what good literature does. (Whenever possible, I like to state the obvious.)

    I wish I could remember who said this, but a quotation that resonates with me goes something like this: "if you never reread, you're always reading the same book." What I take from that is the first time you read a work, you're mainly taken with the what happens next. On rereading, earlier scenes speak to us in different ways -- when I reread the passage where Adrian and Justine are stuck in a small place and he ignores (to the point of insult) her poking him in the belly and then shoves her buttocks as though they were melons, I found myself thinking, "of course, it had to be him." I didn't get that the first time around, because they hadn't had sex yet, and I was focused on their mission. So, whatever you intended doesn't much matter to me except in a kind of prurient way (I intend this as a compliment). And, in any event, I'm pretty sure I'll read that scene differently the next time I reread Black Hawk.

    On Dear Author, I held forth pretty strenuously for the view that Adrian's POV is more dominant than Justine's and that in many ways this is Adrian's book. But I might have an entirely different view if I hadn't read the previous novels. And, again, I didn't necessarily feel that quite as strongly on rereading.

    While we're on the subject of reviews, Chris Szego at The Cultural Gutter lists Black Hawk first on her list of the best romance novels of 2011:

    Merry Christmas!

  15. P.S. Just to clarify, I'm incredibly interested in your (and other writers') process -- in the how and why. But I think that falls more under technique than intent, though they obviously intersect and technique is in the service of intent. But I try to read your novels as novels, not as confirmation of what you've told us here, if that makes sense.

    And I'm a sucker for the details you offer us about a character's back story or what he's doing when he's offstage. Fascinating stuff, and I am grateful when other fans post the questions that have been plaguing me, such as whether you know who Adrian's parents are (she asks sneakily).

  16. Hi DLS --

    Right you are. In Black Hawk I'm trying to do two 'journeys'and kinda wind them together. First time for that, really, for me.

    I had a lot of balls in the air in Black Hawk, so I dropped a few of them, I fear.

    I'm sensitive to the general lack of respect paid to what might be called, 'women's values'.

    Margaret Mead said -- I'm paraphrasing here -- that every society has what is defined as 'men's work' and 'women's work'. But it's not the same work. In one society hoeing taro will be men's work and keeping pigs, women's work. Three islands over, it's the other way round.

    But everywhere, women's work, no matter what it is, is defined as less prestigious.

    This ticks me off, so I don't mind glorifying the values our society deems 'feminine'. As Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?"

  17. Hi Annie --

    I agree with you that the author's intent is of only academic interest. If that. *g*

    As I say above, Adrian's is the first male character journey I've tried to write. Doing the dual journeys was . . . challenging. I was trying for an essentially equal presentation, but I'm pushing the envelope of what I can do as a writer.

    As to Hawker's Backstory: We have some stuff put down about who his mother was. No cheats in that. His mother is exactly as given.

    There are a couple ways I could play the father. I want to reserve that choice in case I ever tell a story about it.

  18. Academics are sometimes interested in authorial intent -- they just don't trust it when it comes to analyzing a work of literature. ;)

  19. I think authorial intent (as a factor in a book review) is about as valid as
    "chef intent" in restaurant reviews.

    In other words, it drives me bananas.

  20. Jo, I am amazed that you put up with readers who use crude words and debate your skill as an author. You're a better woman than me.

  21. Hi Annie --

    I am just not up to the academic study of literature. It is so beyond me.

    I do enjoy watching folks discuss it though, even if I don't always follow the arguments.

  22. Hi Katie --

    'Chef intent' --

    I have this picture of a fellow lifting a leaf of something and peering under it, dubiously.

    He says, "Salade surprise. Yep."

  23. Hi Lynne --

    I don't have many people go cussing me out in reviews or comments exactly. (Sure hope you have this kind of reaction to any of your work. How frightful.)

    I do sometimes wonder if folks have actually read any of my books when they talk about them. I recently came across,

    "... but the books ... seemed more along the lines of Johanna Lindsey or Joanna Bourne. While there is nothing wrong with fluffy, chicklit versions of historical fiction ..."

    and I have been rather blinking and muttering 'Fluffy chicklit? I write fluffy chicklit?'

    I mean, it's not a criticism, exactly, but I feel like I've been called a lettuce farmer. Not insulted, but deeply puzzled.

  24. Anonymous8:36 PM

    I was wondering if they actually read your books, too! I can in no way say that the heroines in ANY of your books are weak...that is soo far off the mark its laughable.. you write wonderful stories that keep me,YES!, enthralled... I read A LOT of historical romance novels so I have seen the "weaker" female in some books but it is surprising few.. Chase, Quinn, Milan,Julie Ann Long all have the same smart,witty, strong woman like you minus the spy thing!Keep writing your beautiful stories.. when your "critics" write best selling,award winning books THEN you might listen until then they can,in polite terms, go fly a kite! Tal

  25. Hi Tal --

    Thank you very much for liking the books. It does make me feel good to know somebody enjoys the work.

    I suspect I should be indifferent to reviews in a zen-like way. The writing is all. That kinda thing.

    Unfortunately, I am not indifferent. A bad review makes me want to go pound on innocent walls with cudgels. A good one leaves me convinced of the sterling character and intelligence of the reviewer.

    But I figger any thoughtful, considered review, whether it's favorable or unfavorable, is going to be useful to the intelligent reader. (I have only intelligent readers.)