[To the Ends of the Universe] White-Hot Lusty Vampires in Love: The Dismissal and Power of Paranormal Romance


Editor’s note: Nebula Award nominated author Jason Sanford is now publishing a monthly column in SF Signal called To the Ends of the Universe. These columns were originally printed in the Czech SF magazine XB-1. Jason’s novelette Her Scientifiction, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy, published last year in Interzone, is now available as a Kindle ebook.

One of the hottest publishing trends of recent years is paranormal romance. Likewise, today’s most dismissed publishing trend is also paranormal romance.

While those statements might seem contradictory, dismissing novels involving the word “romance,” or ignoring any type of fiction which generally appears to be written by or for women, is an age-old affair. In the 18th century, “sentimental fiction” novels were often dismissed by serious-minded people because the books aimed to provoke an emotional response in female readers. Throughout the 20th century the romance genre was generally ignore by literary critics as being worthy of only housewives. The more recent chick lit phenomenon suffered a similar fate, with critics dismissing novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary as “inconsequential” (never mind that the novel’s lighthearted and funny take on life resonated with millions of readers).

Now paranormal romances have joined the dismissal party, with lots of head shaking and tut-tutting from disapproving prudes and critics.

But despite this attitude, paranormal romances refuse to be ignored. The subgenre—which focuses on romance between humans and any number of fantastic creatures, including ghosts, ghouls, zombies, shapeshifters, demons and so on—consistently tops the best-seller lists and is, simply, the go-to writing topic for many of today’s hottest young fiction writers.

Perhaps the most famous paranormal romance series is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of vampire-human romance novels, which have sold over 116 million copies around the world and spawned a blockbuster films of the same name. Meyer’s stories provoked such a passionate response from readers that fangirls divided themselves into opposing teams, with one group wanting the heroine to hook up with vampire hunk Edward while the other supported werewolf heartthrob Jacob. This division was so well-known it was spoofed in the film parody Vampires Suck, where the film closed with Team Edward and Team Jacob going at each other in full-throated war.

Another extremely popular paranormal romance series is the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, detailing the lives of vampires and humans in a small Louisiana town. The series was also the basis for the hit TV series True Blood.

One striking aspect of paranormal romances like these is that they exist within two genres—traditional romances and fantasies. And within the fantasy realm, most paranormal romances fall closely in line with the subgenre of urban fantasies, which set fantasy tropes into modern times and non-rural settings and often feature hard-hitting characters on the edge of society.

Matthew Cook, who published the acclaimed novels Blood Magic and Nights of Sin with paranormal romance imprint Juno Books—along with other stories in the British magazine Interzone—offers this tongue-in-cheek checklist to see if a novel qualifies as paranormal romance:

  • Tough chikz: check!
  • With guns/swords/knives: check!
  • Who are often investigators, detectives, witches, spirit-chasers and/or all of the above: check!
  • Who get romantically (or at least sexually involved with) their paranormal prey: check!
  • Which consists of vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, spirits, mythological hotties: check!
  • Who are often conflicted about their urges to prey on their romance interest: check!

Of course, that’s a deliberately simplified take on the subgenre, and many of those points would apply equally to the urban fantasy genre. But it does illustrate that the main difference between the paranormal romance and urban fantasy subgenres essentially boils down to whether or not the romance is essential to the novel’s plot. If it is, the story is paranormal romance. If it’s not, more than likely it’s urban fantasy.

This blurring between the subgenres is in many ways encouraged by publishers and book sellers. According to author Leah Cypess, author of the young adult fantasy Mistwood, because paranormal romances sell so well publishers often try to place everything in that subgenre. As she says, if you look at the teen paranormal romance section in a bookstore, “at least half the books there would work with the romance subplot removed.” Cypess saw this happen with her first two novels. Because Mistwood had a romantic element, it was placed in paranormal romance. And even though the sequel, Nightspell, lacked that romantic element, many bookstores still sold it as paranormal romance.

According to Diana Rowland, author of the Demon series of urban fantasies and the new White Trash Zombie series, “The biggest difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is the same thing that differentiates any book from any romance novel: a romance MUST have a “happily ever after” at the end (or at least a “happily for now” if it’s a series.) The romantic aspect should be a major aspect of the plot, if not the CENTRAL aspect, and there absolutely must be a satisfying resolution to the romantic tension at the end.”

Rowland also saw first-hand the blurring of the lines between urban fantasies and paranormal romances. “I’ve published three UF novels that have plenty of sex and a dash of romantic tension, but are quite clearly UF because the romance is not central to the plot”—though the sex is, she added with a grin—”and there’s no resolution to the romantic tension at the end.” Despite this, Rowland’s books were often cross-marketed to lovers of paranormal romances.

So if paranormal romances are so popular that other subgenres like urban fantasy try to assume the PA mantel, is it fair to say that people actually dismiss the subgenre?

Unfortunately, yes.

For example, here is the opening paragraph of a New York Times review of the film Twilight:

“It’s love at first look instead of first bite in Twilight, a deeply sincere, outright goofy vampire romance for the hot-not-to-trot abstinence set. Based on the foundational book in Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling multivolume series, The Twilight Saga (four doorstops and counting), this carefully faithful adaptation traces the sighs and whispers, the shy glances and furious glares of two unlikely teenage lovers who fall into each other’s pale, pale arms amid swirling hormones, raging instincts, high school dramas and oh-so-confusing feelings, like, OMG he’s SO HOT!! Does he like ME?? Will he KILL me??? I don’t CARE!!! :)”

Lest you think that dismissive attitude only applies to the film adaptation, note the reviewer equating her comments equally to the novels. And the attitude expressed in that review isn’t so different from what I’ve heard from other people in science fiction and fantasy circles. At one recent convention I attended, a well-known fan expounded at length about his dislike of paranormal romances and how the subgenre was crowding out quality science fiction and fantasy books. I tried pointing out that his comments sounded like the old arguments people made against romance novels, but he didn’t agree.

Personally, I believe these attitudes about paranormal romances result from the subgenre being aimed, for the most part, at female readers. While there are genres which are generally aimed at men—such as westerns and techno-thrillers in the Tom Clancy vein—you generally don’t see them dismissed in the same way as genres aimed at women. And before you think this means only men dismiss paranormal romances, there are also many women who do the same thing. After all, that dismissive New York Times review I mentioned earlier was written by a woman.

This pattern of dismissing certain types of books which are either written or read by women is called “false categorizing,” a term created by Nebula and Hugo Award winning author Joanna Russ in her classic literary critique How to Suppress Women’s Writing. False categorizing is where works by certain authors or on certain subjects are placed in unworthy genres, which are dismissed by society at large. For example, a type of writing popular with female writers and readers will find itself called not “serious, of the right genre, aesthetically sound, important…” by critics. As a result, the entire genre can be dismissed.

I personally think such a dismissive attitude toward paranormal romances is silly. While I don’t generally write in the subgenre—I’ve only written one short story that would qualify as paranormal romance—the subgenre has the same proportion of great works to bad as any other writing style. Theodore Sturgeon’s famous law that “ninety percent of everything is crap” obviously applies to paranormal romance, but it likewise applies to genres like science fiction and fantasy which are not outright dismissed by so many people. And what I find particularly ironic is that it wasn’t too long ago that the science fiction and fantasy genres were themselves on the receiving end of the dismissal stick. Now its often the science fiction and fantasy fans doing what we once experienced from others.

So where does the paranormal romance subgenre go from here? As with the old joke about where does an 800 pound gorilla sleep, the answer is the same: Anywhere it wants to.

Because paranormal romances are so popular, publishers will keep looking for the next Twilight bestseller while writers will keep pairing humans with hot fantasy creatures. And as long as the subgenre doesn’t forget what matters most with readers—an exciting story of love featuring characters who are anything but ordinary—I expect paranormal romances will thrive for many years to come.

15 thoughts on “[To the Ends of the Universe] White-Hot Lusty Vampires in Love: The Dismissal and Power of Paranormal Romance”

  1. This pattern of dismissing certain types of books which are either written or read by women is called “false categorizing,” a term created by Nebula and Hugo Award winning author Joanna Russ in her classic literary critique How to Suppress Women’s Writing. False categorizing is where works by certain authors or on certain subjects are placed in unworthy genres, which are dismissed by society at large.

    Wow, I’d love to listen to a conversation between you and John H Stevens. :)

    But I agree. I was Hulk-Smash angry yesterday when a critic came on the local public radio station and said adults should not read Harry Potter or the Hunger Games.

    Turns out said critic doesn’t even read adult genre novels.

  2. Here’s a question, since you cite Russ. Do you think Russ liked or would have liked Twilight? Because I rather think she would not have liked Twilight.

    JeffV

  3. This genre is way over-saturated though. Even Laura Resnic said so. But then again, so is steampunk (sorry Jeff) and zombies.

  4. Do you think Russ liked or would have liked Twilight? Because I rather think she would not have liked Twilight.

    … and so? That doesn’t mean much: I’m sure there are plenty of books written by women that Joanna Russ didn’t like.

    I don’t think that actually speaks to Jason’s point, though, which is that one of the reasons paranormal romance/urban fantasy is so widely disdained is that it is written primarily by, and for, women.

    I highly recommend reading Meg Wolitzer’s essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the positioning of and critical response to fiction written by women writers, which looks at this issue in the mainstream (non-genre) literary world. It’s all of a piece.

  5. Many women find TWILIGHT offensive because of Bella’s passivity and her need for a man to give her value which are NOT acceptable to most romance readers. I imagine it would have bothered Russ as much as the rest of us.

    As someone who has read widely in paranormal romance (PNR) and urban fantasy, I have some issues with some of the classifications. TWILIGHT and some of the other popular series are considered young adult paranormals, not PNR, and that’s where you find them in the bookstore.

    The “Southern Vampire” series is sold as a mystery, not as PNR, and its structure is a mystery with some romance. Sookie has a number of romances and lovers through the series, and the romantic relationships don’t drive the plot.

    A better example would be the novels of Christine Feehan or Sherrilyn Kenyon.

    In most cases, each novel in a PNR series is set in the same world as the others, but there is a different hero and heroine to fall in love in each novel. Often the heroes or the heroines are part of a group where each character gets his own book and true love.

    The leather-wearing female/hero isn’t as common in PNR where the heroines/heroes are as likely to be a regular person caught up in paranormal weirdness, and the lover of choice doesn’t have to have fangs, fur, or pointy ears.

    PNR also has a much wider variation than UF. Not only is there the standard UF fantasy tropes, but PNR can also include psychics, reincarnation, and time travel among other tropes.

    As a member of some PNR reader lists whose membership is in the thousands and quite vocal on their likes and dislikes, I don’t think non-PNR books need to be classified as PNR to reach their audience. Romance readers are the most omnivorous readers in genre, and they are as happy to read UF as PNR if there’s some romance and a good female character to root for. What does annoy them is books which are mislabeled.

  6. I always blurred the line between YA and adult books because it’s happening a lot. Twilight has a huge adult audience, only partially because a large number of people who began reading it as teens are now adults watching the movies as they come out. This is true of Harry Potter fans as well.

    I hear a lot of grumping in the horror field about Twilight corrupting the genre. But it’s not a horror novel. It’s not at all designed to invoke fear. It’s a PNR all the way.

    As for the Sookie books, they have always been in the SF/F section when I’ve gone to the store. Bookstores class books based on what label the publisher gives them. So while Harris’ Sookie books are in SF/F but her Harper Connelley books (which also have a touch of paranormal) are put in mystery with Harris’ other series.

    There is a lot of cross over, and a lot of blurring because you can find UF and PRN books anywhere from YA to SF/F to mystery or romance sections. As an avid reader of all those genres I never really know whether I’ll be getting a PRN when I pick up a book or a gritty UF unless I know the author already.

    It is a problem, not for me and people who read nearly anything like me, but there are a ton of people who really do only want one type of thing. They want that PNR and nothing dark or gritty. Publishers blurring marketing to confuse that are going to get pinched back.

  7. The interesting thing about Paranormal Romance (except Twillight) is that it provides young women with strong self sufficient female characters to look up to. This is something Historical romance already did and I feel it is very important.

  8. Thanks to everyone for the comments. A few responses:

    1) Obviously the finely tuned slicing of different subgenres and genres is open to interpretation. I doubt anything will ever change this. While humans love definitions, we also love leaving enough wiggle room in our definitions to allow us to do whatever the hell we want when we want it. So it is with assigning different books to different genres.

    2) I’m pretty sure Joanna Russ would have hated Twilight on a personal level even as she smiled at all the attention the series received.

    3) Just because certain people dismiss a subgenre or genre doesn’t mean it can’t also be a massive success with tons of sales. I’ll address this point in my next comment.

  9. Over on his Livejournal account at http://nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/1754570.html Nick Mamatas responds to this essay. I posted the following response there…

    Nick: You raise some good points, even though I obviously don’t agree with a number of them. But I do want to state that my essay never said paranormal romance was being suppressed. While that word is contained in the title of Joanna Russ’ book, which I reference, what I said was that certain people dismiss the subgenre out of hand. Obviously the subgenre isn’t suppressed because it sells like a billion copies and has so many readers.

    As for my motivation, I write what I like and read what I like. The fiction which excites me tends to be highly literate with deeper meaning and craft. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy cheese fests and quickly hacked out novels, which makes up the vast majority of all fiction. Simply tell me a good story with at least a decent level of writing and I’m happy, even if I won’t be re-reading or recommending that story later on.

    I personally don’t care if someone is a neckbeard, part of the hardcore SF community, or someone who has never attended a con–if you like good stories, you’re alright with me.

  10. I wouldn’t call my definitions fine slicing, Jason. Anyone who reads more than a few of these books knows that UF and PNR are distinctly different types of books. As different as a cozy mystery and a thriller, or hard science fiction and space operas.

    You obviously mean well, and that’s all right with me, but you simply haven’t read enough in this genre to recognize what is and isn’t a paranormal romance.

    Here’s a reading list.

    PARANORMAL ROMANCE

    Christine Feehan. Her male good vampire characters are beyond abusive to many of us, and some of her female characters are adult Bellas, but she is one of the major authors in this genre. Less urban fantasy than many.

    Sherrilyn Kenyon. Her “Dark Hunter” series is very well written, and she has a strong background in fantasy so her worldbuilding is impeccable.

    Marjorie M. Liu. One of the best writers in this genre, and she doesn’t “do” vampires and the usual UF tropes.

    URBAN FANTASY (I’ve chosen series that aren’t the standard leather-wearing babe with a sword and a vampire lover UF.)

    Darynda Jones. Her comic “Grave” series is about ghosts and demons.

    Anton Strout. His Simon Canderous series has a male protagonist and isn’t your usual UF.

    Laura Anne Gilman. Her “Paranormal Scene Investigations” is CSI: The Magic Division.

  11. Marilynn: My feeling as well re Jason’s exposure to these genres. Those authors are great choices and ones that make me want to learn more.

    And if I have to like the atrocious Twilight to not be overlooking women’s fiction something is really messed up in the world.

  12. If you ask the average reader to name the most famous paranormal romance series around, 95% of them will say the Twilight series. Doesn’t matter if it is technically young adult, that’s what people see it as. Personally, I can’t stand the series and I didn’t list it here to say this is what paranormal romances are or should be. Instead, what I said was “Perhaps the most famous paranormal romance series is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series…” I merely listed those two series in passing because they are what most readers think of when the term paranormal romance comes up.

    Marilynn, you are correct–I’m likely not as well read in paranormal romance as you are. But this essay wasn’t a summary of the best paranormal romances out there. Instead, it was an exploration of why so many people dismiss this entire genre out of hand. I asked paranormal romance and UF authors to comment on this and reported what they said, along with my own views on the subject.

    People don’t have to like paranormal romances. People can hate or love whatever they want. My only point with this essay was to explore why so many people seem to dismiss paranormal romances out of hand, without even reading in the genre. That’s all.

  13. Jeff: You don’t have to like Twilight to not be overlooking women’s fiction. That’s not at all what I was saying with the essay. And as others have said Twilight is a piss-poor example of women’s literature.

    I made a mistake using Twilight as the example in my essay. I should have picked another paranormal romance–Twilight simply pushes too many buttons with people. But what I was trying to say was that its silly to dismiss paranormal romances as a WHOLE. Obviously individual novels and authors in the genre are crap and should be pointed out as the crap they are.

    1. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m so glad you brought up this topic. First, I see why you mentioned Twilight even if it doesn’t work for me personally. I agree that Russ probably would have hated Twilight, but would have loved that it existed at all. After all, we can’t be having a conversation about how passive Bella is if the character didn’t exist in the first place.

      In addition to Marilynn’s recommendations, I’d also add J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series and Lara Adrian’s Midnight series. Both vampire series have a lot in common and I’d love to write a comparison on them sometime. Since I often recommend Ward’s first in the BDB series, Dark Lover, as a “grown up Twilight,” I’d also like to see a comparison between Bella and Beth, the heroine in Dark Lover. Ward’s series has sometimes come under fire for its passive heroines, but a closer examination reveals that the series shows quite a range of different types of women, some of whom are indeed more passive, while others are definitely of the “warrior woman” archetype (Xhex in particular).

      What’s interesting about Ward’s Beth, especially in comparison to Bella, is that Beth starts out as your everyday girl with an office job who finds out she something else entirely. Having the hero by her side along that path is certainly important, but it’s not only through him that she attains her new self. Wrath is certainly initiatory in some areas of their relationship, but in the final steps Beth has to take on her own.

      Connected to this topic is the expected power balance between heroines and heroes in PBR. A while ago I bemoaned the fact that in PNR often the hero gets to be the paranormal character.

      While I have enjoyed PNRs with “vampire boyfriends” where the hero is the paranormal character, I don’t want that to be my only option. At this point it’s become a trope to me so I’m looking for PNRs where the heroine or both characters are paranormal. In that respect, I’d love to flip the ideas and see a PNR series about a vampire sisterhood. If we can wrap our brains around that idea, then maybe we can finally figure out who Wonder Woman is supposed to be in the 21st century.

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